I'm not sure when exactly but a few years ago I noticed I was eating fewer salads with salad greens as the base ingredient - opting instead for cucumbers or tomatoes. At first I thought my tastes had changed but on closer examination, I realized it was not me but the salad green itself that had undergone a transformation. As I spoke with other folks in the industry, I was surprised to find they had similar experiences. Sales continued to grow as new blends and packaging styles emerged but something was missing for me. This led me on a search for the perfect salad.
Variety Trials - Carmel, California
The search began with a look back. Salad leaf has changed a bunch in the past 20 or so years. What was once a category dominated by mature heads of iceberg, green leaf, red leaf, butter leaf and romaine has evolved into an army of carefully cultivated babies - greens harvested in roughly 1/3 the time it takes to grow mature lettuce, neatly washed and packed in shiny plastic containers. The search for interesting colors year-round has also led the industry to add baby cooking greens into their salad blends. Kale, chard, mustard and even beet greens are now a common ingredient in many "pre-blended" salad mixes.
"Teen-aged" Lettuce Heads- 50 Days Old
Salad or "Mesclun" (pronounced "mess-cloon") blends got their start here in the U.S. in the restaurants of San Francisco in the late 1970's - an idea brought over from French farmers' markets. By the late 1980's Mesclun mix had migrated to grocery stores and was making its way across the country. The early salad blends were hand harvested, washed and shipped in bulk. The first I recall selling came from a small farm called Star Route in Bolinas California. By the mid-1990's large scale baby greens production was perfected and salad mix was brought into the mainstream where it has become the best selling salad lettuce today.
Bibb and Red Oak Leaf
In the early 1990's I worked at our Mill Valley store and I remember unloading the three pound boxes that came directly from the farm. The salad mix had been picked and packed the day before and had a scattering of nasturtium and borage flowers on the top of the blend of lettuces and greens. Everything I received that day would be sold by that afternoon. So, extreme freshness was one of the things I missed from my earlier, less complicated salad days.
Another was taste. The search for color in our salads had a bitter consequence. What was once a blend dominated by sweeter (and more uniformly colored) lettuce greens is now more colorful and visually appealing courtesy of the baby cooking greens, but it is more often than not bitter and unappetizing. In my opinion, a lettuce salad combines many flavors. Bitter in moderation is fine, but too much of any one characteristic dominates (and not in a good way).
Green Oak Leaf
The last thing I miss is texture. I realize now that "baby" is just too young. Granted, my salads have become more complicated as I've gotten older, but a baby lettuce leaf with barely 30 days in the field does not stand a chance against the myriad of oils, vinegars, cheeses, nuts, fruits, tomatoes and other sundry pairngs that make up my salad. These poor baby greens have literally collapsed under the weight of my evolving palate.
So what makes for a good salad blend? Here are my personal tastes:
- The blend must have more lettuce than greens - there is nothing wrong with bitter but it should not be the dominate flavor characteristic. Greens for color are fine but they should be no more than 25% of the blend if they are in the mix at all.
- Size is important. This will vary from variety to variety and the style of the salad will also contribute, but an unbroken leaf that is bite-sized (2-4") is the best size for salad leaf. The immense popularity of salads based on the "heart" of mature heads of lettuce reinforces this notion.
- Texture is key. Drew Goodman, the founder of Earthbound Farms, had a great way of describing texture in a plant. He said the "spine" of a leaf of lettuce (or the thicker often white center of the leaf) must be fully formed in order for the leaf to reach its optimal flavor and texture balance. He believes this stage is somewhere between where baby and full-sized lettuce is currently being harvested. He believes, and I agree, that perhaps a "teen-aged" head of lettuce (a head harvested in the 45 to 60 day range) may be the leaf stage that is just right.
These middle stage lettuce heads show up in-season at my local farmer's market. Earthbound Farms recently introduced a new Heirloom Salad blend that features lettuce grown to what I believe is optimal stage for flavor and crunch. I also have a fall back now that I can compost the outer 2/3's of a mature head of lettuce if all I want are the succulent inner leaves. The industry continues to evolve and does put out a very good product, so I have hope I will one day find my perfect salad.