When spring has sprung, the very first green leaf tips fill us with happiness. Like hungry rabbits who have subsisted on slim pickings over winter, we are ready to graze. While we should resist the urge to start with grass in the front yard, the impulse to eat spring salads is as old as the hills.
In fact, almost all of our lettuces are descended from a single plant, Latuca Sativa, a slightly less bitter weed that people have been working on for at least 5,000 years. All those centuries of breeding and selection have given us mild, sweet lettuces that range from crisp to tender, as well as greens with just enough bitterness to appeal to the palate. So it is good to get creative with salads when spring's bounty comes to us.
Salads are the perfect place to let inspiration strike and to respond to the seasonal flow going on around you. Long before any high-end chefs ever put microgreens on a plate, gardeners were thinning their plantings, and enjoying the tiny baby plants in salad. A row of kale, carrots or beets shouldn’t be too crowded or it stunts the plants, so we pull the extras to give the chosen few room to grow. You may not have a garden to pluck from, but sprouts of all kinds have the same vibrant sprout energy. Soak and sprout your own seeds, like radish or my favorite, fenugreek, for a spicy note in salads.
Tender salad greens
If you are building a green salad, you need to think about the weight of it—not the grams per serving, but the sturdiness of the greens and what complements them. Tender baby greens or cress are light and soft, and are best combined with subtler flavors and lighter dressings, like vinaigrettes. Hefty Romaine or baby kale are more assertive, so they can hold creamy, rich or spicy dressings with great aplomb. A perfect little baby leaf lettuce will be crushed under a thick creamy or nut based dressing. A ratio of one part sour to two parts oil is the norm for a vinaigrette, but you can go one to one for a lower-fat option, and add some fresh or dried herbs, sweeteners and Dijon for body.
And while you are considering greens, put fresh herbs on your mental checklist. Parsley, chervil, and other fresh herbs can be tossed with some abandon into salads. Watercress is in its own category as a salad green; both tender and peppery, its good combined with other greens or alone, and is very nutritious.
Other great spring salad players are sliced radishes, usually one of the first things to mature in the garden. Their peppery snap is at its most mild now. White, red, or one of the many exotic varieties, all are good. Spring berries are busting out in many regions, and they are perfect in salads and dressings. A favorite of mine is to puree a few strawberries or raspberries in the vinaigrette, then toss berries in the salad. Spring asparagus, barely blanched, or raw and sliced thinly, makes a salad substantial. Spring is also a season for fresh mushrooms—consider slicing them raw, or steeping them in a tasty vinaigrette for a couple of hours before piling them on a salad. Don’t relegate the first tender rhubarb to only pies, a few slivered stalks can have a bracing acidity and crunch, and with a sweet dressing they will add spring zing to a salad.
Spring is a great time to "spring clean" your diet after a winter of heavy foods. While a full-on cleanse or fast may not factor into your plans, you can get cleansing benefits from just eating more salad. Add a good sized salad at lunch and dinner and you are very likely doubling your veggie consumption and filling up with high fiber, nutrition-rich foods. Salads and veggies are also alkalizing, and reduce the acidity in your body, so it’s all good.
Whole meal salads
Whole meal salads are perfect when you are busy working in the yard or starting your bike riding season. Just keep your spring salad veggies handy, and embellish with your fave proteins and whole grains. Cooled cooked grains like brown rice, quinoa or wheat berries add a nutty chew to your salad toss. An accompaniment of whole grain toast or croutons with a schmear of creamy cheese or nut butter can give your salad meals a little more heft. Open a can of tender white beans or add nuts and cheese for vegetarian mains. A shredded chicken breast or a few cooked shrimp will make a salad substantial for the omnivores.
Springtime is salad time, and if you let the seasons guide you, you'll be nibbling on an ever changing buffet of fresh, satisfying salads all summer long.