When one thinks of "salad days" it conjures up images of when one was youthful and daring especially when a man was a roué or a dude. In "The Art of Courtship," Franklin Morton describes our salad days as: "One's youthful or best period of creativity, work, enthusiasm and vigor."
During these warm summer days in South Florida one needs all the help we can get to be vigorous, youthful and daring ... and hopefully consuming refreshing, invigorating and nourishing salads will do just that.
Since Americas have become more health-conscious, salads are way at the top of the list of delicious and nutritious foods. Growers have jumped on the farm wagon by cultivating numerous varieties of lettuce and salad ingredients ranging from watercress to Mache, from wildflowers to fresh herbs. The demand for diversity in texture, color and flavor has created a whole new challenge to farmers and gardeners.
Typically eaten after an entree in the 17th and 18th centuries, salads today often serve as an appetizer. Some provide a pleasant light contrast during a main course and at formal dinners, the salad is used to cleanse the palate. Salads are especially favored by the French who serve it after the main course, often with cheese.
Salad ingredients are tempting and savory, filling us up while not filling us out. Americas seeking slimmer ingredients should appreciate the versatility of salad ingredients, most especially lettuce. Low in calories and high in nutrients, lettuce is so versatile it complements most foods. It may be paired with meats, poultry or seafood, topped with fruit, nuts, breads, rice or pasta. Although salads are an important part of our diets, they can be made as substantial as a main course with the addition of any number of components.
For centuries, lettuce has been the main ingredient in salads. It is a key ingredient in many Chinese dishes, often used as a colorful contrast to heavy foods. Europeans commonly cook it. The classic French combination of green peas, lettuce and mint was a favorite of Thomas Jefferson. The French even fry lettuce. Laitue Colbert is parboiled lettuce that is drained, dipped in egg and breadcrumbs and deep-fried.
Early culinary records reveal that romaine, or cos lettuce was named for the Roman tablespoons it resembled. Records from 550 BC show that it was cooked in Egypt and also at the Persian court.
In 1894, iceberg lettuce was introduced into the U.S. market. In 1930, growers developed a sturdier and less perishable variety, making it available throughout the country. It was first called crisphead lettuce. When transported from California on large chunks of ice, it became known as iceberg. And although there has been a proliferation of designer lettuces, iceberg remains the best seller. It is the staple of all salad greens, and iceberg sales equal the sales of all other lettuces combined.
Here is a glossary of the various lettuces you will find in your market. No matter what variety you select, remember that they are all related and marry well, each complementing the other:
■ Iceberg Lettuce: Has crisp, circular leaves. Since the leaves are thick and tightly furled, iceberg stores well. Its major drawback is its lack of flavor, but it blends well with other greens and other ingredients. It is the most inexpensive salad green and is available year-round.
■ Butterhead: More loosely packed than iceberg. It has softer, more fragile leaves and keeps only for three to four days. Boston lettuce is a close cousin, as is Bibb, which has a smaller, more tightly curled head. Both of these Butterhead lettuces have a subtly sweet flavor.
■ Romaine: A must when making a Caesar salad, romaine has been cultivated for more than 2,000 years. It is elongated, with loose leaves at the top. The leaves vary from medium green to pale inner ones. Romaine is very crisp and can handle strong dressing. It keeps for seven to 10 days if stored properly. The red romaine provides a splash of color to any old standby. It is a cross between romaine and red-leaf and has a very crisp, curly leaf with purplish-red tips.
■ Oak Leaf and Red Oak Leaf: Flat, loose-leaf varieties named for their notched leaves.
■ Mache: Mild, sweet and fragrant it grows in small bunches with green leaves. In the Midwest Mache is called lamb's lettuce and sometimes corn salad, since it springs up in cornfields. Other names include lamb's breath and lamb's tongue. It is pricey but, when available, well worth it.
■ Limestone: This variety is a cross between Mache and Butterhead lettuce. It has small heads and delicate leaves.
■ Radicchio: Also known as red Italian lettuce, red leafed chicory and Red Verona lettuce. With its deeply colored, purplish-red, circular leaves it resembles a tiny red cabbage. Best in autumn and winter, most is imported from northern Italy, explaining the pricey cost. Radicchio provides great color and flavor relief from more common salad ingredients. With its firm texture, it also serves as an hors d'oeuvre or sauce container.
■ Arugula: This is the chicest lettuce of the hour and its popularity is growing; also called rocket, it is everyday fare around the Mediterranean. It has a peppery, pungent taste and adds a savory flavor to the most mundane salads. Available mostly in summer.
There are many more varieties of lettuce and greens that may be added for variety and flavor. When you see curly endive, Belgian endive, chicory, sorrel, purslane, dandelion greens, watercress and even kale, beet and mustard greens, be daring and add them to that summer salad. Perhaps, who knows ... they may bring on the best of your salad days.
Helpful Hint: Betcha didn't know that lettuce and other greens should never be kept too close to fruits. They release ethylene gas and this gas will cause the lettuce to brown prematurely. Keep your vegetables in one part of the refrigerator and your fruit in another.
Q: I took a cooking course when I lived in Ohio. One of the best dishes we made was a garlic bread which was easy to make and really delicious. In moving, I lost the recipe and hope you have one.
— Earnestine Farnsworth, Naples
A: What a great recipe and ideal to accompany barbecued chicken or ribs on the Fourth of July.
Garlic Quick Bread
3-1/2 cups all-purpose flour
3 tablespoons sugar
1 tablespoon double-acting baking powder
1-1/2 teaspoons salt
½ cup butter
1-1/4 cups milk
3 large cloves of garlic; more or less according to taste
About 2 hours before serving:
Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Grease well a 9-by-5-inch loaf pan. In large bowl, with fork, mix flour, sugar, baking powder and salt. With a pastry blender or two knives used scissor-fashion, cut in butter until mixture resembles coarse crumbs. Add remaining ingredients; stir until moistened.
Turn dough onto well-floured surface; knead until smooth and not sticky, about 5 minutes. Shape dough into a loaf; place in pan. With sharp knife, make 6 diagonal slashes, ¼-inch deep, across top of bread. Bake for 1 hour and 10 minutes or until golden. Remove from pan immediately onto wire rack; cool for 30 minutes. Slice and slather with butter or garlic butter and ENJOY.
Doris Reynolds is the author of “When Peacocks Were Roasted and Mullet was Fried” and “Let’s Talk Food.” They are available for sale in the lobby of the Naples Daily News. Also available is a 4-part DVD, “A Walk Down Memory Lane with Doris Reynolds.” Contact Doris Reynolds at email@example.com.