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Inspiring Greens

By Ellen Ecker Ogden

My daughter Molly, home from college for the summer is determined to learn how to cook. After two years of institutional dining food and microwave noodles, real food suddenly has appeal. So we start with the basics: salad dressing.

Bottled dressing is not an option in my kitchen. I serve a green salad for dinner every night, tossed in a wooden salad bowl with a light vinaigrette. My recipe follows the classic proportion I learned from my mother: 4 parts oil to 1 part vinegar. But after that, the recipe gets loose, depending on the type of lettuce and the piquancy of the greens. If the leaves are soft and buttery, I'll substitute lemon for the vinegar. A tough romaine deserves a bold balsamic vinegar, and a teaspoon of Dijon. And I sweeten spicy mixed salad greens with a dab of maple syrup.

Molly grew up eating lettuce from our garden and family meals were an integral part of her early education, so I wasn't worried that she left home with the same uncanny ability to live on macaroni and cheese as her roommates. And when she spent two summers working an organic farm on Martha's Vineyard, I hoped that the seed we had planted for cooking healthy meals might start to emerge. Blame it on the two burner hot plate or the fact that there was no kitchen sink, but taking time to actually cook a meal still hadn't taken hold.

I now watch as my daughter learns to cook. Excited to bring her into the world of food according to mom, I play down my enthusiasm so it won't scare her off. Learning to cook goes beyond following a recipe, and involves a whole range of sensory perceptions that are picked up through experience. The same rules apply to gardening: build a good foundation with rich soil, excellent seeds and an unlimited curiosity to explore new varieties and taste new flavors, and cook and the gardener will be well rewarded.

Running out to the garden just before dinner to snip a salad for the table is one of life’s simple pleasures, and when Molly was young, we would often go together. We took the long way to the lettuce patch, to inhale the aroma of lemon and cinnamon basil, nibble on tender pea shoots and young shoots of micro greens. We savored the taste of tender lettuce, baby spinach, mustard, red orach and young kale before it hit the salad bowl and the flavors were washed with dressing.

Lettuce Greens

Lettuce and salad greens are the best place to start for first time gardeners, and are one of the most satisfying vegetables to grow. They usually pop out of the ground less than a week after sowing and are ready to harvest in a month, and luckily, most greens tolerate just about any kind of weather. Spring and fall are the natural seasons for good greens, but you can produce good crops right through the summer in all but the hottest climates.

Preparing salad greens, I explain to Molly, as she removes pre-washed greens from the refrigerator, is like conditioning flowers. If you can keep the stems and leaves full of moisture, then quickly cool, they will stay crisp and hardy. Earlier in the day, I had immersed the fresh greens in a basin of cool water, spun them dry, and then wrapped the leaves in absorbent towels before placing them in the refrigerator. I will let her do this step next time, but I decide to keep it easy in this first class.

Most salad greens and Mesclun mixes are "cut and come again" which means once cut, they will re sprout, yielding a second harvest in several weeks. Yet this bonus crop is not always as tender and succulent as the first growth and will often bolt and go to seed faster. The trick to continuous lettuce and salad green production is to grow them in succession, which means sowing a new crop every two weeks. Keep going as long as you can into the fall; cool weather heightens the flavor of most salad greens.

I watch as Molly stirs her salad making ingredients, preparing a simple vinaigrette makes an excellent first cooking lesson. Start by lightly seasoning the wooden salad bowl, rubbing the inside with salt and crushed garlic. Into the bowl measure four parts extra virgin olive oil to one part herb vinegar, add a few herbs and other seasonsings, the greens and toss.

She is intent on following the recipe and I appreciate her serious approach to measuring the ingredients, and know that she will no longer let me get away with casually adding ingredients at whim. Not until she learns that cooking with confidence comes from experience and lack of measuring spoons are merely the perks.

Molly has now whisked together the oil and vinegar, I suggest a dash of Dijon mustard, and a scant teaspoon of maple syrup. " Now taste it." I tell her. Her face squints, her lips gently smack, and her eyes get that momentary far away look that says, " Don't disturb me, I'm thinking."  And I am thinking, too. Go ahead…Add and subtract to your heart's desire. Like teaching Molly to garden, all I can hope for is that this simple lesson in making salad dressing will leave a lasting impression, even after the summer is over.


About the Author
Ellen Ecker Ogden is co-founder of The Cook's Garden seed catalog and author of the cookbook From the Cooks Garden (Wm. Morrow Cookbooks) She grows salad greens and teaches cooking from Manchester Village, Vermont.

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