Salad as Still Life

by Sarah West

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Salad is an ancient meal. Our modern chopped and dressed version has not wandered far from the baskets of leaves gathered in forests and meadows since before remembered time. Our tastes have expanded and contracted over the millennia; the iceberg faze of the mid-twentieth century being the most recent contraction, and the diversity of greens we see in today’s markets and restaurants the next expansion.

Salad has changed the way I see my own garden. Still the place I once intended it to be—rows of lettuces for tearing and tossing with vinaigrette, peas for raw eating or a quick sauté, radish for slicing, kale for soups or braising—it has also become something akin to those ancient meadows. I wander through, nibbling, learning the flavors of young and old leaves, stems, tendrils and, when they come, whole blossoms or petals of flowers. Even my garden’s weeds have occasionally delighted me with a surprising complexity of flavor. And I have found myself on a hike now and then choosing carefully identified specimens from the forest floor for a quick burst of flavor, a true appetizer, sparking dreams of the next meal. (Of course, eating indiscriminately even from your own garden, is not without its hazards.  Be safe and look it up if you don’t know.)

Since I began harvesting my garden as a forager, endless combinations have appeared on my plate. And with a dose of romanticism, I’ve begun to think of salad ingredients as a painter would her paints. I search for beauty in juxtaposition, so diverse my palette of flavors and textures has become: silky, curly, nutty, tender, mineral, crunchy, buttery, briny, fibrous, juicy, bright, bitter*, grassy, tangy, hot.  From herbs a whole spice cabinet of accents is available—anise, cinnamon, pepper, clove. And the colors! Deep purples and reds, green splashed with red, reds and greens fading into one another like clouds at sunset, green as sweet and new as spring itself stretching all the way to green that is almost black, pinks and violets, oranges and yellows bright as any citrus rind. The garden holds as many possibilities as the painter’s box.

Spring is salad’s grandest season for eaters like me who adore the soft, subtle flavors of greens grown in the sparse sun and frequent showers of Western Oregon’s lengthiest season. I do almost nothing to help them along, then carry my salad bowl outside to collect at whim: small leaves from the bolting stalks of overwintered kale or broccoli, mache, baby arugula, mizuna, pea shoots, spring planted chard, miner’s lettuce, bittercress and, of course, plump lettuces (crowns of the spring garden) with names like ‘Divina,’ ‘Flashy Trout’s Back,’ ‘Ice Queen.’

Salads made this way need very little else to accompany them. Fresh oil, a splash of light vinegar, flaky salt and a good toss will have you on your way, leaves glistening and bare, to museum quality.

*A quick note on bitter, the flavor in the garden perhaps most difficult to love. In my experience, there are two main categories of bitter: the one that fills the mouth with a hard, pungent taste that lingers the way skunk musk persists over a patch of road, and the one that starts like the first but finishes sweet, a deep hint of caramel at the back of your mouth that makes you reach for another leaf. I used to go for nothing bitter, and now the second category, with its alluring sweetness, has become something I rarely want a salad to be without.

(Originally published in the Hillsdale Farmers’ Market newsletter, The Grapevine, May 3, 2012)

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