Salad as Still Life, Revisited

by Sarah West

GTF Lettuce

This month marks the start of my fourth year writing these blog posts. When I began, I hadn’t written anything substantial in almost ten years and it felt good to get out and stretch my creative legs in the realm of the garden, market, and kitchen, territory that had by then become as beloved and familiar as the books that initially inspired me to write. Discovering gardening and fresh vegetables through studying horticulture and working in the small farm community gave me the compelling muse I felt I lacked as an aspiring young writer.

Three years after I wrote my first blog post, Salad as Still Life, I sold my first article to a print magazine, which draws on the same infatuation with spring lettuces, and the same metaphor. You can read an online version of the introduction and following lettuce variety descriptions, originally printed in the May/June 2015 issue of Rodale’s Organic Life magazine.

I still love the way this piece set the tone for the ones that would follow; because, in the words of one of my favorite garden writers, Wendy Johnson, when it comes to vegetables, “Beauty counts.”

Thank you all for reading, commenting, and encouraging me along the way!

The following is a reworked version of the post originally published on May 3, 2012:

Salad is an ancient meal. The modern chopped and dressed version has not wandered far from those baskets of wild 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. Never quite the place I once intended it to be—neat rows of lettuces for tearing and tossing with vinaigrette, peas for raw eating or a quick sauté, kale for soups or braising—it has become something akin to those prehistoric meadows. I wander through, nibbling, learning the flavors of young and old leaves, stems, tendrils, and, when they come, flower petals or whole blossoms.

Even my garden’s weeds have occasionally delighted me with surprising complexity of flavor. Little Western bittercress, a common weed in early spring’s wet soil, is so delicious I fend competitors away from a few specimens to let them grow large, their tender compound leaves lending a lively blend of herb and pepper to the salad bowl. I have found myself on a hike now and then choosing carefully identified foliage for a quick nudge of powerful flavor that acts as a true appetizer, sparking dreams of the meal I’ll make when I get home.

Of course, eating indiscriminately even from your own garden is not without hazard. Be safe and look it up if you don’t know. I once spent an afternoon trying to discern whether the leaf I impulsively consumed was chervil, finally germinated months after I’d planted the seeds, or its close relative, poison hemlock. I would have rather conducted that research without monitoring for symptoms of impending doom.

Since I began seeing my garden as a forager, endless combinations have appeared on my plate. With a dose of romanticism, I’ve begun to think of salad components 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, muscular, juicy, bright, bitter, grassy, tangy, piquant. From the herb patch comes a whole spice cabinet of accents—anise-flavored tarragon, floral parsley, peppery or cooling mint, clove-scented basil.

And the colors—deep purples and reds, green splashed with red, reds and greens fading into one another like clouds at sunset, green as pure as spring itself spanning all the way to green deep forest dark. From chard, shiso, amaranth and quinoa leaves, we get pinks and violets, oranges and yellows bright as any citrus rind. Left to the whims of a curious tender, the garden becomes as diverse as a painter’s box.

Spring is salad’s grandest season for eaters like me who adore the soft, supple flavors of greens grown in the cool sun and frequent showers of Western Oregon’s lengthiest season. I do almost nothing to help them along, then carry my salad bowl outside and 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 ‘Red Earred Butterheart,’ ‘Flashy Trout’s Back,’ and ‘Ice Queen.’

Salads made this way need very little else to accompany them. Fresh oil, a splash of light vinegar, flaky salt, a few cracks of pepper, 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.