Salad Days

No longer satisfied with regular old iceberg lettuce, Americans are finding flavor in nutritious gourmet greens.

April 17, 2002|By Donna M. Owens | Donna M. Owens,Special to the Sun

There was a time when our concept of the salad green was pretty much limited to iceberg lettuce: We'd top it with a wedge of tomato and a slice of cucumber, ladle on the French or Thousand Island dressing, and voila -- the perfect salad.

But times have changed. Today, the simple salad green has grown up, keeping pace with increasingly sophisticated and multicultural American palates.

Besides iceberg, there are now dozens of varieties of salad greens, ranging from familiar spinach, endive and romaine to gourmet varieties, such as tat soi (pronounced tat soy) and mizuna.

Although most greens are available year-round, the approach of warmer weather brings an interest in lighter fare, for which salad greens, nutritious and easy to prepare, are perfect. Greens can also aid dieters who are tackling extra pounds that may have crept on during the winter months.

"It's that time of the year, when people make their second New Year's resolution," Shannon Green, a registered dietitian with Bon Secours Baltimore Health System, says with a chuckle. "The flowers are in bloom, everything's green, and we're thinking healthier."

Green especially likes the baby field mixes that tend to be even higher in nutrients than the mature greens. "Most greens are just power-packed with vitamins A and C, iron and even calcium, which comes from the soil," Green says. "Once you ingest or digest any unaltered plant source, like greens, they bulk up, so you tend to feel fuller and not overeat."

The benefits of salad greens have long been known. According to the cookbook James McNair's Salads (Chronicle Books, 1991, $12.95), the word salad originated with the Latin sal or salt. It is believed to refer to the ancient Roman habit of dipping greens in salt before eating them.

These days, the variety of greens available in the grocery stores, farmers' markets and restaurants offer something to suit almost every taste.

Want your greens small and extra tender? Try tiny micro-greens, picked before maturity. If pesticides, fungicides, herbicides and other synthetic chemicals seem worrisome, then consider organic greens. You can even find greens that come in shades, well, other than green.

"Nature has given us many different colors," says Mike Pappas, co-owner/manager of the 16-acre Eco Farms in Lanham, which specializes in organic, designer crops. He cites granache du panache, with its golden-hued leaves, and another Asian favorite, hon tsai tai (pronounced hun sigh tie), which is burgundy colored. Romaine also comes in shades of red.

"Chefs and those who enjoy fine dining are looking for something flavorful and exciting," Pappas says. "Not only are they [greens] beautiful, but they are very tasty."

The quest for fresh salad has led to a revolution in supermarket chains and grocery stores. Most carry prepackaged, pre-washed mesclun or other assorted mixes. And a few upscale chains, such as Whole Foods/Fresh Fields in Mount Washington, sell loose organic blends by the pound.

Exotic greens also are increasingly found in the local farmers' markets alongside the more usual offerings of tomatoes and corn.

"Greens have become a luxury item, so taste and freshness are all important," says Tony Evans, who coordinates farmers' market programs for the Maryland Department of Agriculture. "We see more people supporting local farmers for that reason. It makes sense that vegetables and fruits grown here will be fresher than something harvested in California and shipped thousands of miles."

As a result, many area restaurants have established symbiotic relationships with local growers. For instance, Eco Farms provides fresh greens for Roy's, the Hawaiian/Asian-style fusion restaurant that opened last August in Inner Harbor East.

"It tastes better, and you cannot beat the quality," Roy's executive chef/partner James Rosenberry says of the locally grown greens.

Rosenberry says salads are a popular item on Roy's eclectic menu. On this particular day, the salad offerings include Boston bibb lettuce with sweet onions and Gorgonzola, and a Caesar salad topped with grilled lemon-pepper chicken, avocado and herb croutons.

"I like that local farmers we work with can customize a baby field green mix just for me," he says. "If I want 12 different types of greens, I can get it."

Southeast Asian Lime Dressing

Makes about 1 cup

2 tablespoons safflower oil or other high-quality vegetable oil

1 tablespoon minced or pressed garlic

3 tablespoons coarsely chopped fresh red or green hot chilies, such as serrano, or 1 tablespoon crushed, dried red hot chili

1/2 cup freshly squeezed lime juice

1/4 cup fish sauce, preferably Thai (nam pla), or 2 tablespoons soy sauce

2 tablespoons sugar

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