By Sarah West
As summer starts to hit its stride, confronting garden rows with dryness and heat, head lettuces tend to make like a Parisian and go out of town for the month of August. While it is entirely possible to grow head lettuces through the summer, performance is often lackluster and frustrating once the temperatures rise—without abundant irrigation and steady fertility, head lettuces tend to suffer stunted growth then bolt in the blink of an eye.
Luckily, summer offers its own assortment of heat-loving greens and the selection in local markets and seed catalogs seems to get better each year. Below is a guide to some off-season greens that we’ve seen from time to time at market. Add new dimension to your salad repertoire, take advantage of the unusually dense nutrients some of them offer, and keep the fresh greens flowing in the heart of grilling season.
Baby Greens Mix While it is challenging to grow mature lettuces in the peak of summer’s heat, baby lettuces, kales and mustards make a delicious and quick salad crop. Scatter seeds in a new 2-4 square foot patch every two weeks for a continuous supply and water regularly, or let your market farmers do the growing for you!
Lambsquarters Cousin to spinach and beets, lambsquarters (also called goosefoot and pigweed) is a weed of cultivated ground, appearing in gardens and among agricultural crops in profusion. Their young leaves are succulent and tender and make delicious salad greens with a nutty and rich mineral greenness. Lambsquarters is one of the most nutritious salad greens, high in protein, calcium, iron and vitamin-A, as well as many trace minerals of which it is an excellent scavenger. Sautéed, lambsquarters easily stand in for spinach or even surpass it if you appreciate a concentration of smooth spinach flavor. Try laying roasted zucchini on a bed of lightly dressed lambsquarters to slightly wilt them and complement zucchini’s mild, sweet flavor with lambsquarters’ rich base.
Quinoa Leaves Close relative to lambsquarters, quinoa has a fleshier leaf and more versatility in the garden. As a salad green, quinoa is best harvested before it starts to set its flower stalk. Similar to lambsquarters, quinoa is a nutritional goldmine wrapped up in vegetal spinach flavor. In the garden, quinoa does triple duty as salad green, ornamental, and seed crop. As quinoa seed heads mature, they take on electric hues of pink, orange, burgundy and green that add interest and bold color to the vegetable patch or ornamental border. As a food source, quinoa seeds are a high-protein grain-like food that, when cooked, have a texture similar to couscous. Get the best of all three growth stages by harvesting raw greens from juvenile plants, then letting them grow to produce seed. Leaves from mature plants may still be eaten, though are better cooked at that stage.
Purslane Succulent and strange to our flat-leaf-oriented tastes, purslane is an anomaly of a salad ingredient. Wild native of the Mediterranean, northern Africa, Middle East and India, purslane has an extensive catalog of uses in salads, soups, porridges, stews, pickles and even as a pastry filling. As a salad green, think Mediterranean flavors: toss with tomatoes, feta, cucumber, oregano, and a robust vinaigrette. We would all do well to embrace purslane’s briny lemon-and-pepper juiciness, for it contains more omega-3 fatty acids than any other green vegetable, along with calcium, potassium and vitamin-A. Purslane’s stalk is too fibrous to eat raw; remove its leaves by pinching the base and running your fingers along the length of the stem to release them. The most challenging aspect of purslane is its mucilaginous texture. Start with purslane as an accent before making it a summer salad base.
Orach Another spinach tribe salad green, orach is a soft-leaved, scarcely domesticated green with handsome arrowhead-shaped leaves available in a dazzling variety of colors. Garden orach, the most domesticated edible variety, got it’s name from the French word arroche, derived from the Latin word for ‘golden,’ a nod to the golden green leaves some garden varieties sport. Gardeners throughout orach’s wide natural range have always reveled in its spectral genetics, and renewed interest in orach as a garden green has helped continue the tradition of selecting for vibrant pigments: magenta, purple with fuchsia-pink veins, burgundy red, and eggplant. Turn your salad into a party by seeding a mix of orach varieties. Though orach’s greens hold longer than spinach’s in summer’s heat, orach will eventually bolt and performs best as a food crop when sown in succession into moist, rich soil. Harvest leaves until the plants reach 18-inches, then let it go to seed; its ornamental bracts are as lovely in the vase as they are in the flower garden.
Fresh Herbs We tend to think of herbs solely as a seasoning agent—concentrations of aromatic flavor, we use them more sparingly than not in our cooking. Rich in vitamin A, flat leaf parsley has a pleasing combination of sweet and bitter notes, with a backbone of celery aroma. Young leaves are tender and make a delicious salad green, chopped finely and tossed with cooked grains, as in tabbouleh, or simply tossed with oil and something acidic like lemon juice or pickled onions. Try adding a handful of basil, dill, parsley or cilantro leaves to your salad mix. Keeping the leaves whole means their volatile oils won’t begin to dissipate before you take a bite.