From the Field: Seasonal Salad Greens

Learn what winter hazards await the farmers who grow salad leaf lettuce from James, our resident produce expert. Try out his favorite winter salad recipe and share yours.

My salad menu is a constantly evolving, seasonal beast.

Like the rest of my diet I like to incorporate what is available in abundance seasonally. This presents a bit of a variety challenge in the winter — even here in Northern California where there is a fair amount of wintertime production, the quality and availability of salad ingredients can be inconsistent.

Winter is a tough time to grow and harvest anything, but it’s particularly hard on salad leaf. Most of the production is located in the southernmost parts of the country (Florida and California) and the whole country is dependent on what is produced in these areas.

Higher transportation costs have also changed the economics of the salad leaf business — moving more and more West Coast leaf production to Florida to avoid additional miles to market.

This winter has been milder (and drier) than most but salad leaf production is still treacherous. The cooler weather and shorter periods of daylight means the plants grow slower.

This extended time in the field leaves it vulnerable to a wide array of pest problems — most notably aphids, which can experience population explosions in mild winters. Another common hazard for wintertime salad leaf is freeze damage.

While most winter growing areas stay well above freezing during the day, evening temperatures will often fall below freezing for sustained periods. When this occurs the outer layer of a plant’s leaves can be damaged, producing a condition called epidermal peel. This condition is similar to chapped lips with us and is often difficult to spot in young plants. As the plant leaves mature the outer layer (which looks like thin, translucent paper) will peel away.

Romaine and iceberg are the most susceptible to this condition; red varieties are better adapted to cooler growing conditions and experience it less.

Because they grow slower, winter leaf lettuce also has a more robust flavor and texture. Because of this I tend to use more of the heart and less of the outer leaves. Many packaged salad producers offer hearts of romaine but I personally prefer the texture and flavor of butter lettuces in the winter.

I also enjoy the process of breaking apart and washing whole heads of lettuce. Simple salads in the winter seem befitting of the quiet period of rest before the explosive abundance of spring and summer.

Here is one of my favorite winter salads:

Hearts of Butter Lettuce with Citrus Vinaigrette

The Vinaigrette

4 tablespoons olive oil

1 tablespoon white wine or champagne vinegar

Juice of half a tangerine (or whole if it is very small)

Dash of Dijon mustard

Freshly ground pepper to taste

Combine all the ingredients and set aside for the flavors to combine.

The Salad

1 large head red or green butter lettuce (or 2 small)

2 TB curly parsley, finely chopped  (adds a nice deep green to this salad)

1 ripe avocado, cubed

Handful of pecan halves- lightly toasted

Combine the butter lettuce and parsley in a large mixing bowl. Add the vinaigrette and toss until the leaves are well coated. Top with avocado and pecans. I serve mine with some freshly grated Parmesan, but that’s optional.

This is only one of the many salads I love in the winter.

If you have a favorite wintertime salad, please share. I am always keeping my eye out for new favorites.

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