Growing Great Lettuce – and The Best Spring Salad Dressing
After years and years of happy harvests, garden mainstays like heirloom tomatoes, squash blossoms and armloads of fresh herbs are as familiar as breathing, but every spring I get surprised all over again by the lettuces: how beautiful they are, how delicious, how willing…
And how different from the lettuce at the market, whether super or farmers.’ Being both extremely bulky and highly perishable, first class lettuce is a perfect poster child for home-grown.
It’s an ever-changing parade, with overlapping performers. First come the mild, mid-green frills of Black Seeded Simpson, dotted around in self-sown clumps, offspring of last year’s late summer’s crop. Then close behind them the classics of spring planting, including our favorite: buttery thick-leafed Webb’s Wonderful.
Rule # 1? Thin the lettuce! Do it yesterday. Whether it’s fast growing spring lettuce or the slower summer types, plants that are free from undue crowding grow at a pace that promotes flavor and tenderness.
#2. Provide fertile soil and ample water but don’t get carried away. Lettuce that gets too much nitrogen gets big without developing flavor and is vulnerable to rot, a favored child of soggy soil.
#3. Choose the lettuce for the season. Any good catalog will describe its choices in terms of their resistance – or lack thereof – to heat. Craciovensis, for instance, shoots up quickly in a way that would spell inedible bitterness in most varieties. But it not only keeps its sweetness, you get the thick stem as a bonus. Anuenue, a crisphead from Hawaii, stays rock solid when temperatures climb, and if it’s less sweet than cool season crispheads it still makes a mean BLT.
The Best Spring Salad Dressing
When the lettuces are super-tender, mild flavored and sweet, the way to dress them is in cream, not olive oil.
Mince a small amount of garlic or garlic scape and crush it with salt in the salad bowl. Add a good glug of heavy cream, about 2/3 as much liquid as you’d be using if it were oil. Squeeze in not a lot of lemon juice. It will thicken the cream. Taste. Add more lemon if it’s insipid. Otherwise, in with the lettuce, toss and taste again. That’s it. The lettuce is a miracle. Don’t mess with it.
Another reason to Grow your Own. Conventional lettuce is on the Environmental Working Group’s Dirty Dozen List. It carries quite a bit of pesticide.