The chartreuse landscape of emerging shrubs and trees echoes the bright-green hues we witness in the lettuces and tender vegetables in our gardens or at the farmers markets this time of year.

The word “greens” covers two kinds of leaves: lettuces that become the basis for salads as well as the heavier sort such as kale or dandelion greens that can become either a side dish or the main course itself.

Both the tender and the hearty lend themselves to an almost unlimited range of creativity. However, just as with any food, making salads can get into a rut, with tomatoes and cucumbers dotting a handful of baby leaves from a box of spring mix, drizzled with ranch or balsamic vinaigrette.

There are nights when, clearly, that is better than no vegetables. On the other hand, greens can be so much more.

There are a few guidelines to keep in mind:

Start with a focal ingredient and build around it.

Choose only three or four accents.

Wash your greens well.

Don’t drown your greens in dressing. Dress at the last minute and serve immediately.


This could be the first tender greens snipped from under the cold frame — they are delicate and airy, and repeat the bright yellow-green of the spring landscape.

To complement them rather than drown them, choose lightly flavored items such as chervil or parsley, light and fruity olive oils and citrus — both zest and juice. Consider shaved fennel, radish, asparagus, red onion or Parmesan, and thinly sliced pears, apples or almonds.

If, on the other hand, you discover some hearty baby beet greens or baby kale at a farmers market, a different sort of treatment is required. They are still tender greens, but with more texture and “tooth” — more flavor, typically one with a slightly bitter tone.

These greens could handle crumbled, full-flavored, creamy cheeses such as a blue or goat cheese. Caramelized or toasted nuts might go well, as would a stronger but still fruity vinegar.


Choose only three, at the most four, accents for your salad, and think about the different textures and flavors of each ingredient and how they might work together or compete.

Think about incorporating one crunchy, one soft, one sweet and one salty, bitter or tangy element.

Again, choose to focus on only a few of these. You want the ingredients to complement each other like notes in a song, not become overwhelmed by a cacophony of sounds.


Before composing your salad, give your greens a quick soak in ample cold water. Make sure you give them time to rest in the water so that any grit is able to float to the bottom.

Use your hands to transfer the greens from the water to a lettuce spinner or a strainer lined with a pillow case. If you simply pour the water and the greens into the strainer, the grit at the bottom ends up back on the greens.

The lettuce spinner requires little explanation, but the pillow case — the old-fashioned salad spinner — may need describing. My grandmother would spin her greens this way by taking the pillow case filled with greens outside and spinning it as hard and as fast as she could. The water is pulled out of the case, and the greens remain unbruised.

In any case, well-drained greens are important to a bright, flavorful salad, rather than one that turns insipid due to being watered down from lack of care.


Whether you are using a store-bought or homemade dressing, go lightly. Dressing the whole salad (rather than everyone dressing their salad separately) will encourage you to use less. Add some, toss and taste. Add more only if needed.

If you are feeling a time pinch, try this instead of a store-bought dressing: add a small handful of greens per person to the salad bowl. Add the accents. Drizzle with an oil that complements your ingredients, and toss gently with your hands.

Squeeze fresh lime, lemon or orange juice over the greens, sprinkle with sea salt and fresh black pepper, and again toss gently with your hands. Taste to make sure the balance of acid and salt are just right, and serve. This technique works well with all sorts of vinegars as well.

Lastly, greens will last in the refrigerator for a number of days if they are well spun. Wrap them in a paper towel to encourage any standing water away from the leaves.

Once dressed, a salad should be served immediately. The greens will begin to wilt as they absorb the oil and vinegar.

However it is that greens find their way to your table, know that there are innumerable ways to reinvent the same dish over and over again.

Anne Mahle of Rockland is the author of “At Home, At Sea,” a recipe book about her experiences cooking aboard the family’s windjammer. She can be reached at: [email protected]


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