May 27, 2014 - Radio Kitchen - Greens and Vinaigrettes: Part One
One of the mainstays of the spring marketplace are salad greens. These crisp, refreshing components of endless salad variations are among the first local items to arrive every year. And when we start talking about building salads we should also talk about salad dressings, and in particular vinaigrette.
I spoke with Cinda Sebastian, owner of Gardner's Gourmet Farm, and one of the leading greens growers in Maryland. She gave me the low-down on what's out there this spring. Greens come in a wide variety of flavors and textures. It might be good to think of a continuum running from the mildest to the most pungent.
Iceberg lettuce - This is probably the most basic and blandest lettuce out there. It's water content is high, and its flavor is mild in the extreme. What it does offer is great crisp texture, and it cuts up into bite-sized chunks.
Bibb lettuce - Also known as butter lettuce has more flavor, but its broad lazy leaves offer very little structure to a salad. Its texture however is almost creamy, and it sets up other flavors very nicely. It is de rigueur for Salad Nicoise.
Green and Red Oakleaf lettuce - These offer good texture and a more pronounced sweet flavor. And of course the red variety offers spectacular color as well. The leaf's firmness and good flavor make it a perfect choice for a BLT or any other sandwich or burger.
Romaine - This is practically the King of Lettuces. It's long broad leaves and firm spine make it ideal for good structure in a salad. The flavor is slightly grassy, but the rib can be a bit bitter, so some people like to cut it out. It is the classic backdrop for a Caesar Salad.
The chicory family contributes a number of favorites to the salad world.
Belgian Endive - These sturdy little canoe shaped leaves have a somewhat pungently sweet flavor with a touch of bitterness. The shape is ideal for holding any number of "stuffings" and it goes very well with straight high quality olive oil.
Escarole - Is similar to leaf lettuce, only its frilly edges are very pronounced. It has a mild flavor, so what you are working with is the visual appeal of those dramatic leaves.
Frisée - The name says it all: frizzy greens. Its leaves are pale and almost feathery, and the flavor is mildly bitter. This green is all about the texture, and it really can kick up a salad based on that alone.
Radicchio - The dramatic maroon color of radicchio as an important attribute, but its crunchy slightly bitter taste is even more important. Its broad sturdy leaves make an ideal bed for other ingredients, but somebody figured out that grilled radicchio is a smash hit. The cooking brings out a surprising sweet flavor that is easy to like.
Mizuna - This is a Japanese green that has a lovely shape, a long slender leaf with pointed lobes up and down the spine. It is usually found as a supporting player in mesclun, where its delicate texture is valued.
Kale - The now welcomed member of the Brassica family comes in a number of variations. What they have in common is pronounced flavor and a sturdy, almost tough texture. Often best served lightly sautéed.
Spinach - Is the Queen of the Brassicas. Baby spinach is among the mildest greens going, and as the plant gets older and bigger the flavor intensifies somewhat. It is a nutritional powerhouse and it's extremely popular in tossed salads.
Arugula - This pungent green also known as "rocket" is the poster-child for the foodie movement. Unknown 20 years ago, its strong peppery bite adds a great deal of presence to a salad.
Mustard Greens - Only recently appreciated, these strongly flavored greens grow all winter long, and the colder it gets, the sweeter the flavor. But along with that sweetness there is a very distinct fiery pepper.
Opinions differ on matching dressings to salads, but I think the smart thing is to match intensity with intensity. I spoke with our friend Liz Nuttle at EN Olivier about how she goes about making a great salad dressing and I came away with some ideas.
1. The classic dressing is the vinaigrette, which is a blend of superb olive oil and really good vinegar. The standard proportions are 3 parts oil to one part vinegar, but acid freaks will reduce that to a 2-to-1 ratio.
2. Balance is the key to any good vinaigrette: the oily texture needs acidity to perk it up. Mustard is a great emulsifier, helping the oil and vinegar to combine, plus it adds a flavor all its own. And God knows there are dozens of choices in mustard. A touch of salt is never a bad idea, and neither is a touch of sweetness.
Liz loves to take a dab of jelly and blend it into her dressings. EN Olivier has a number of jelly choices, including a line of wine and fruit jellies that offer very classy flavors. It's also possible to find peppery infused jellies that match up with fruits like raspberry and Meyer lemon. The whole idea is to be creative and to stay balanced.
To go shopping for great vinegars and oils, visit EN Olivier, just off Falls Road across from Princeton Sports. The proper address is 1407 Clarkview Road, 410-823-6457. This is one of Baltimore's culinary treasures.
**The Radio Kitchen Featured Buy of the Week**
Strawberries are here in great abundance. These luscious berries are iconic springtime treats. Buy them at the market or go to one of the many pick you own farms scattered around Maryland. Go to www.pickyourown.org/MD.htm to find a farm near you.