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Lettuce Be Healthy

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

For dressing:

1. In a small bowl whisk crushed cloves, lemon juice, olive oil, balsamic vinegar, salt, and black pepper together.

For salad:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. Place lettuce leaves in a wide mixing bowl. Add red onion and daikon slices along with cut tomatoes.
  4. 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. 

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61 replies »

  1. This post REALLY speaks to me. Love it. I have long gone by “medicine is thy food and food is thy medicine” especially after a bout with breast cancer. I was fortunate to meet Dr Gabriel Cousens, which changed my life. I cut out dairy, sugar and white flour and eat very little fish or meet. As much fresh fruit and veggies which are full of nutrients before they get cooked.

    Salads are my favorite food on earth.. when they are made right. Crunchy, a variety of textures, flavors, crunch and of course a great dressing. For years I have invested time in making really good salads, but of course for us too, while on the road it is one of the hardest things to find (depending on where you are) but what I started doing was going to local food markets and buying the produce and making the salads whenever possible.

    There are many excellent resources for tasty delicious veggies only, preferably raw and organic to be had. Try Gabriel Cousens “Rainbow Diet”…. “The Rawtarian” online … and “Raw the Uncook Book” by Juliano are some of my favorites.

    Supporting local organic farmers whenever possible by going to farmers markets is essential for their survival, or as you mention, if you are in a region like California where produce is sold at the side of the road from stalls.

    Peta

    • Thanks so much Peta for your thoughtful comment about eating healthy. As you say the hardest thing to find is a salad that is made right. Thanks for the nutritional and cookbook recommendations, I shall look into getting a couple of those to help me out while on the road. Wishing you all the best in your continuing recovery (hooray!) from cancer.

  2. This reminds me of the ongoing efforts to promote heritage crops and livestock varieties that I’ve been hearing of in America. But at the end of the day, just being able to rediscover fresh food made with soul and with a connection to its roots is so refreshing. Like that old Chinese proverb: ‘when you drink water, remember its source.’

    • What a great proverb to live by. Whether it is the food I eat or things I buy, I am finding that a personal connection behind it makes the experience that much richer. Thanks for sharing the proverb with me!

  3. Wonderful post! I love organic and next to picking straight from farms, I’m glad we have several local stores with huge organic produce section – Sprouts, Trader Joe’s are favorites here.

    • Thank you, glad you enjoyed the story. How lucky you are to have so many choices about fresh produce…as summer beckons in the northern hemisphere I am sure you are excited about all the great dishes you can make with the local farm goodies.

  4. As you’ve already figured out, you’re totally in the right place for produce. The encounter with the Strawberry Lady sounds serendipitous, and the recipe looks excellent. Sorry to hear you’re not feeling well – while traveling that’s got to be a downer, as they say in certain places. 😉 Hope you’re better soon, and thanks for the visit!

    • I am happily recovered now. 😀 As you say being sick is never convenient, but when it happens on travels it is more of a burden. Thanks so much for stopping by and for your well wishes!

    • 😀 I would have thought it odd before, but then learned there are dozens of lettuce varieties available. I’m looking forward to finding and taste-testing fresh “red-sails” and “blushed butter oak.”

  5. So sorry that you’ve been in not-so-good shape. But then it brought you to this point, where you’re more aware of what you eat, how healthy they are, and where they’re grown. Apart from her genuine kindness, that strawberry seller does know how to sell. I would have bought a lot of strawberries to if I were there myself. Love this post, and wishing you a speedy recovery!

    • Thank you so much, I’m happy too that my illness led me to delicious strawberries and better eating habits. The orchard owner was very knowledgeable and her enthusiasm for her crop made her a great salesperson.

  6. Thanks for sharing your lovely post and healthy recipe! Delicious and really good for us… glad you are better and enjoying good health again. Appeciate you stopping by and all the best in your travels. 🙂

  7. Beautiful colors. I couldn’t help but noticing your Swiss chard photo, as I’ve been eating quite a bit of it lately. Not only do I like it, but it’s one of the few vegetables in my grocery store grown in the US… I actually love salads and I love mixing fruit in with the greens. I’m particularly partial to arugula, and my favorite salad is arugula with olive oil and balsamic vinegar dressing (2 to 1), gorgonzola and pear (with a little salt and pepper). I hope you’re feeling better. (I doubt your recovery has to do with age – I think viruses are getting stronger.)

    • Thank you for your kind concern Karen, I am happily on the mend. Loving your arugula salad recipe and will be trying it out as my next salad attempt. Thanks for sharing. So far the fruit inclusion in salads is brilliant: I’ve had strawberries, oranges, and avocados. Looking forward to more come summer months.

  8. Sorry to hear that you have been ill. All this beautiful produce is sure to set things straight. I make a similar strawberry salad to the one you mention all the time although i typically use spinach.

  9. I’m sorry to hear that you have been sick. I was recently ill, too, and it took a long time to recover. As a result, my eating habits have improved changed. I love all of the creativity in modern salads. Fruits mixed with veggies, for example. Here in Prague there are seasonal farmer’s markets, so you know that what you buy is in season or grown locally in greenhouses. I hope you’re feeling in top condition again soon.

    • I too am taking longer than expected to recover. I don’t know if it’s because I am also traveling or just getting older. Happy to hear, though, that you’re doing better and taking advantage of Prague’s farmer’s markets. One of the things I miss about being outside the U.S. is the plenitude of these. Here’s to maintaining our improved eating habits! 😀

  10. We have completely lost touch with where our food comes from. I dream of the day I can actually again know what is really in season. In the UAE there is a winter growing season, when we can buy local organic produce, mostly eggplant, zucchini, peppers, tomatoes and herbs, but for the rest, everything is imported. Not that there is much choice in a desert country, as even locally produced vegetables come at a price, as the water that is used is desalinated.

    • That is one of the issues with desert living I had not thought of before. My education in seasonal produce has been gravely lacking so far. I would love to visit more farms and get to know more farmers so I could learn more.

  11. Fabulous, delicious post, BT. We are lucky to be in a place where you can buy local and have access to fresh, organic ingredients. Excellent post and photographs.

    • Thanks Jane! Yes, Californians are so lucky to be so close to their food sources and to have so many fresh markets available…it reminds me of my Europe and Asia travels where this is an everyday experience.

    • Hooray! Congratulations on signing up for a CSA! Let me know how it goes. So sorry to hear you are unwell too. The greens really do help, as does soup. I have been having vats of it. Here’s to us recovering quickly! 🙂

    • Woohoo! I’m thrilled to hear that. I want to try and visit more farms and get to know more farmers too. Thankfully, here in northern California lots of farmers’ markets are already in full swing on the weekends. Happy produce hunting!

  12. Sorry to read about your illness. I hope you are fully recovered. These gorgeous fruits and vegetables should help. In an ideal world, we would all be eating organic, in-season, locally-grown produce.

    • Thank you. I really appreciate your concern. I am on the mend, but it is taking longer than I expected. Thankfully the healthy greens and lots (and lots) of soup are doing their work. 🙂 Once upon a time not eating things in-season and local was unheard of, but technology really changed the way we eat. I’m hoping to get back into something of that ideal world, but it will not always be convenient I know.

  13. In my job I teach primary school children to cook. We predominantly get our produce from our garden next to the kitchen. Seasonal eating is a lost art. I am learning while I teach how satisfying it is to eat what the planet provides at that time of year. I loved your descriptions of food, they made my mouth water 😋

    • Thank you for letting me know that you enjoy my descriptions of food. I try to put into words how things taste rather than simply saying everything is delicious. 🙂 Is cooking class part of the curriculum or is it something extra you saw the need for? I do feel that eating seasonally and locally is also closely tied to the art of cooking.

    • In the United States where supermarkets are the most convenient way to get food, the CSA lets people access fresh, local crops. Certain farms offer subscriptions to their produce. People who live nearby pay a certain amount and in return receive a share of the harvests, according to growing seasons.

  14. Sorry to hear you’ve not been well. Definitely not easy if leading your lifestyle and I hope you’re fully fit now. It is easy to regard salads as boring but it’s just for the want of a little imagination, isn’t it? And good ingredients, of course. 🙂 🙂 Stay well!

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