After a period of illness I gravitate towards simple meals. This is difficult on the road where healthy repasts take time and packaged foods are easy to prepare. The silver lining to being recently sick is that I have been incapacitated in Napa Valley, California. Perhaps it is because so many vintners reside here, but fresh-picked produce is plentiful and comes in delectable varieties. I have been getting to know the charms of delta asparagus soup, braised artichoke, and candied pecan. Then I meet the beet salad at Mustard’s Grill. Sweetly earthy, the amethyst beets, just collected from the restaurant’s adjoining garden, dance with the anise flavor of crisp fennel. Velvety textured red-veined sorrel add depth while a tart pomegranate vinaigrette zings my palate. This salad is a revelation of color and character.
Heretofore, I believed salads to be monotonic compositions of insipid iceberg bits sprinkled with tomato scraps and shaved carrot. As a whole they bored me; when I picked at the components they were always dry, flat, and stale. I thought it was how vegetables tasted. I viewed salads as I do medication — necessary yet unpleasant. I understand now my mistake: salads are what you make of them. They can be sweet, sour, creamy, or crunchy, their best feature the play of raw elements at the peak of ripeness. Now that I am smitten with the medium, I hunger to find those ingredients. I search for just harvested spinach, stare at lettuce varieties in the grocery, even contemplate how to cultivate an herb terrarium on a nomadic existence. It is more of a challenge than I expected.
Although farmlands stretch to the horizon on both sides of every California road I drive, I notice non-native fruits at farmer’s markets. In the store aisles out of season legumes tempt me from behind artificial misters. At eateries unchanging menus claim to be based on local ingredients. The chain from surrounding farms to the daily food on my plate is missing many links. There is a craze for food traceability and everyone wants in on the parade, but I am struggling to connect the dots that lead from producer to fork.
Along route 128 east I spot handmade signs for strawberries on sale which lead me down a dirt winding path that ends at an orchard. Bushels of scarlet berries sit on crates out on the lawn. As I peruse through them a middle-aged woman in jean overalls appears.
“You’ll want the ones that have a deeper shade of red,” she says approaching, “gently squeeze them…if they’re ripe they’ll be springy to the touch. Though, I don’t sell unripe ones,” she adds with a lopsided smile, “but its always good to check before you buy.”
“Thank you,” I reply, “these look delicious! I’m looking forward to eating them.”
“It’s their peak season. What are you planning to make with my strawberries?” she asks.
“Oh, I—well,” I stutter, stumped, “I’m not sure. I was simply going to have them on their own.”
“Salad,” she tells me promptly, “have you ever had a strawberry salad?” I shake my head. “It’s simple and easy. Slice up a pint of strawberries. Add a bunch of romaine. Chop up a handful of candied almonds. Pour a couple of tablespoons of balsamic and honey over all of it.”
“Thanks so much for the recipe,” I tell her, “I’ll take two pints of your strawberries for that salad.” While she measures out I ask, “Could I use plain almonds instead?”
“Yes, but almonds aren’t in season right now. You’d have to wait till August to get those fresh which is the end of strawberry season.”
“Oh I see! Would you have a recommendation for where to find fresh romaine?”
“The central coast and valley have a lot of lettuce farms. That would be your best bet.”
“Wonderful! Thank you,” I reply, taking the paper bags she hands me. “I’ve started looking into getting more fresh produce in this region, but it’s confusing. I don’t really know who to trust for local vegetables or fruits or nuts.” She nods.
“Yup. It all has to be organic fiddle-fiddle and environmentally sustainable and grown locally, but that just can’t be true for everything, can it? Each crop has a season. People shouldn’t be expecting strawberries in November or avocado in August, but there you are.”
“Right. So, how do I know what’s in season?”
“Did you see my signs along the road? Look for what farmers are advertising ready for picking on their land. County bureaus sometimes post harvest calendars too. Course, if you belong to a CSA you’ll only get what’s in season.”
“CSA? What’s that?”
“Community Supported Agriculture. Some farms let you subscribe to a share of their crops. You have farms near you? You should see if they have a membership program.”
“I’ll have to look into that. Thanks so much for all your advice…and the strawberries!”
“Sure. I’ll be selling until July if you’re interested in coming back.”
I drove out of the strawberry fields, my head full of tarts, jams, and scones. But, first things first. There was a salad I wanted to make. I was determined it should contain the freshest, tenderest ingredients. So I turned south in quest of succulent romaine meadows. My ailment has taught me the importance of healthy eating, but in my pursuit of such a goal I realize I need an education. To live sustainably I have to learn about the seasonality of foods. The more I can eat what is being harvested the less packaging I consume. To support local economies I have to buy from the source, visiting farmsteads and community garden cooperatives, where I can interact with growers. They can help me understand the land, the ecosystem within which they operate, and the genetic diversity of their yields. Above all, I have to remain curious about how my food is nurtured, because my interest, my questions, my attention insures reciprocity. It would be easier to walk the supermarket corridors, tossing an abundance of cellophane wrapped groceries into my cart. After experiencing the crispness of garden beets, the punch of potted mint, and the succulence of orchard berries I am convinced eating fresh is worth the effort.
BT’s LETTUCE SALAD RECIPE
Serves 4 Total Time: 35 minutes [Dressing Preparation Time = 15 minutes; Salad Preparation Time = 20 minutes]
WHAT YOU NEED
For the dressing
1 garlic clove, crushed
1 ½ tbsp lemon juice
1 ½ tbsp extra virgin olive oil
1 tbsp balsamic vinegar
salt to taste
black ground pepper to taste
For the salad
1 butterhead lettuce (Burgundy Boston or Skyphos are best varieties), washed and leaves separated
½ head of red-leaf lettuce, washed and leaves separated*
1 bunch of arugula leaves, washed
3 medium red onions, sliced into thin crescents
2 large daikon, washed and sliced lengthwise
1 cup cherry red tomatoes, washed and cut in half
1 cup cherry yellow tomatoes, washed and cut in half
2 tbsp small capers, whole
WHAT TO DO
1. In a small bowl whisk crushed cloves, lemon juice, olive oil, balsamic vinegar, salt, and black pepper together.
- Wash all the lettuce leaves thoroughly to remove dirt and grit. If you do not want to have whole leaves in your salad, hand tear the lettuce into half pieces. A brief note on the lettuce varieties chosen here: butterhead lettuces, like the Boston varietal (also known as Bibb) provide pale green, soft leaves which are mild to the palate. The red-leaf lettuce has a loose head with ruffled tops which are sweet. The arugula is a type of lettuce which does not grow in a head. Its leaves have a peppery, bitter taste that will work well with the other lettuces.
- Cut the tips of the daikon from its body. Peel off the outer layer of skin. Using a sharp knife or a peeler, slice along the length of the radish, producing thin long wafers.
- Place lettuce leaves in a wide mixing bowl. Add red onion and daikon slices along with cut tomatoes.
- Mix salad well and sprinkle capers on top. Serve with dressing on side.
* BT Tip: If you have chosen the Skyphos lettuce, then switch to a green-oak leaf lettuce for some color variation.