By Ellen Ecker Ogden, "Homegrown Salads,"March/April 2009
When I planted my first garden in 1980, I marked the perimeter of the small plot with four sticks and string. With a sharp-edged spade I removed the layer of turf, dug up the remaining soil to loosen it, and then shoveled on some compost. I planted seeds of basil, lettuce, beets and arugula, sprinkled them with water and walked away. I was fresh out of art school, and money was tight, so I thought this might be a good way to cut down my food costs.
I would be lying if I said the garden thrived. There was a constant battle with weeds, and the garden hose didn’t quite reach far enough, so the plants were frequently thirsty. Yet the thrill of dashing to the garden just before dinner to clip a few leaves of frilly Lolla Rossa lettuce or crimson Bull’s Blood beet greens for my salad kept me at it. And that thrill gave way to a feeling of pride in growing my own food. This set into motion a larger patch the following year, and by my third season the garden covered more than two acres.
Since I could buy tomatoes, corn and cucumbers at the market I focused on growing those herbs and greens with a short shelf life that were hard to find. The garden took up more and more of my time, so eventually instead of making art on a canvas, I began to think of myself as a food artist. I built a collage of lettuces splashed with dabs of red orach, fronds of chervil and rosettes of claytonia. Seeds and plants were my paintbrush as I combined waves of bronze-tipped lettuce with swirls of magenta radicchio and spikes of blue-green kale, highlighting them with accents of brilliant orange nasturtiums. I built my salads with the same artist’s eye. I loved to layer the flavors and textures of earthy baby kale or spicy mizuna with dark green mustard leaves laced with red-purple veins, as in the Spicy Green Salad with Soy & Roasted Garlic Dressing. And the flavors were incomparable. Fresh-picked, the tender greens from my garden were like nothing I had ever tasted.
It wasn’t long before I was in search of chicories from Italy, mâche from Switzerland and heirloom lettuce from France. Along the way I discovered packaged seed mixes known as mesclun, derived from 18th-century recipes created by French and Italian gardeners. I couldn’t get enough; soon I was ordering seeds in kilo bags.
In just four years, my garden project had progressed well beyond growing a few things to eat. So I co-founded a seed catalog called The Cook’s Garden to share my love of European and American heirloom lettuce and salad greens (as well as justify my buying habits). At first, it was just a seasonal business. During the winter, I packed seed envelopes on the kitchen counter. The catalog started as a two-page listing featuring close to 150 different types of exotic lettuce and fancy salad greens with wonderful names, such as Reine des Glaces (Ice Queen) and Osaka Purple Mustard. I quickly discovered that there were other gardeners who, just like me, were hungry for something out of the ordinary to plant in their gardens.
Many of these greens were new to me and to our customers, so I began to develop recipes to include in the catalog. I experimented and learned that spicy greens, such as arugula and mustard, could be tamed with a creamy dressing, while milder greens, such as mâche or delicate butterhead lettuce, required a light dressing that wouldn’t overpower them. I also shared tips I learned along the way, like make sure your greens are completely dry before you dress them, or rub a wooden salad bowl with a pinch of salt and a clove of garlic to season it before tossing the greens with the dressing.
Eventually I outgrew The Cook’s Garden and sold the catalog to W.A. Burpee Company. But today I still plant my garden full of lettuce and salad greens. The flavor of fresh greens will always beat anything I find at the market, and I still plant a patchwork quilt of red and green lettuce edged with a ferny border of parsley. Besides, growing a garden is the next logical step beyond eating locally grown foods and I like the responsibility of growing my own—it’s the ultimate celebration of fresh seasonal food.