The following information, recipe and photography were provided courtesy of local cookbook author and chef, Carla Snyder. Learn more about Carla and discover her recipes at Ravenouskitchen.com.
It’s summertime and we can’t wait to start eating hallmark summer salads featuring fresh, local greens. Here in the Midwest, those local field lettuces are still a few weeks away from arriving in grocery produce bins. What is a salad lover who wants to eat local to do? I recently did a deep dive into the boxed lettuce section at my local Heinen’s and came up with some surprising and exciting options.
Local Greenhouse-Grown Lettuce
Why eat lettuce and herbs from California and Arizona when a company in Burton, Ohio is growing some of the most delicious and conveniently packaged greens and herbs available? Great Lakes Growers is a local hydroponic grower of fresh, delicious and nutritious lettuces and herbs. They grow everything in a state-of-the-art greenhouse with no chemical herbicides or pesticides, making it better for both your body and the environment. Since they grow in a climate-controlled facility, everything is in season all year long. Their produce comes from right here in Ohio instead of being shipped from the Southwest U.S. or Mexico, so it’s unbelievably fresh and tasty. Plus, the greens are washed and ready to hit your plate, so until the local outdoor-grown lettuces come in, the variety and convenience of these greens is tough to beat.
Local Farm-Grown Lettuce
In a few weeks, the locally-grown field lettuces and herbs will be available and that is certainly something to celebrate as well. At this point in the early summer, leafy greens are tender and sweet and need little more than a good toss with vinegar and olive oil to make them shine. Look for lettuce leaves that are crisp with no wilting or yellow and keep them cool and dry once you get them home. I like to give these greens a soak in the sink once home, swishing them around to remove any sand or grit. Once they’re clean, I roll them up in dish towels and place them in a plastic bag in the fridge until all the water is wicked away. If your leaves become wilted, you can try to revive them by tossing them back into a sink of cool water and see what happens. All but the most wilted usually perk up.
Differences between Lettuce Varieties
The biggest differences among lettuce varieties is in their texture and color. For crunch, try romaine and for softer textures, look for leaf, little gem and butter lettuce. Young greens like kale and mustard are more assertive and less likely to wilt once dressed, as is radicchio and endive. The best salads have a mix of tender and sturdy greens with contrast in texture, color and flavor, so mix it up. Variety really is the spice not only of life, but of salads as well!
I have an herb patch in the summer and it’s one of my favorite things, but it’s nice to know that I can purchase a large bin of delicious organic basil from a company called Buckeye Fresh in Medina, Ohio to make enough pesto to last the summer season and beyond. There is simply no way I could grow enough basil for a summer’s worth of Caprese salad, so those large bins of basil and smaller packages of thyme, marjoram and chives really come to the rescue. Most organically-grown produce sold in the Midwest travels an average of 1,500 miles before it reaches your table, but when you buy locally grown it is usually as fresh as 1 day from being picked and that, my friends, is another great reason to buy local.
Locally-Grown Lettuce and Herb Recipes
One of my favorite ways to use fresh herbs in the summer is to sprinkle them over good butter. Herbed Butter with Warm Bread is one of the most perfect and simple pairings in the world and good local butter is more widely available than ever before. For this most simple dish, buy the best-unsalted butter you can find. Anything local is best, but if local butter is elusive, look for an imported butter like Kerrygold, Plugra or Lurac. Why choose unsalted butter when we are only going to sprinkle it with salt? Because salted butter is a fresher product. Salt is added to preserve butter (among other things) and that salt allows butter to keep on the shelf for a longer period of time. Unsalted butter doesn’t last as long and so… it’s fresher.
For this dish, smear the best butter you can find on a wooden cutting board or a plate. I find it easier to do this if the butter is left out of the fridge for 30 minutes. Then layer on fresh herbs, edible flower petals, capers, citrus zest, flaky salt and freshly ground pepper until it looks amazing. Serve at the table with hot-from-the-oven bread such as a country loaf, baguette or ciabatta and let the good times roll.
The second recipe is one of our favorite meals. We call it “big salad” partly in reference to the salad Elaine Benes obsessed about in Seinfeld and partly because, well, that’s what it is… a big salad. There’s lots of lettuce, lots of texture, lots of herbs, lots of vegetables, just lots. I like to use a mix of lettuces in this salad and often use a packaged Mediterranean mix with a few handfuls of arugula thrown in for good measure. Chop up veggies of your choice and toss it all in a grill basket, or a sheet pan if you’re using the oven. I like to toss the greens with some of the vinaigrette, then toss the cooked vegetables with the remaining dressing to make sure all components are flavored perfectly. Topped with grilled or rotisserie chicken, cheese and herbs, this is a meal to fulfill even the hungriest appetite or conversely to please the lightest eater so everyone at the table is happy.
Here’s to a summer of salad and herbs galore. If you’d like to host a really simple evening with a friend or two, I highly recommend this little picnic.