MANY STALLS at our farmers markets display giant tubs heaped with dainty leaves in every shade of green, red and purple. It’s easy to assume they are all the same, but the truth is that farmers and gardeners can choose from seeds for dozens of varieties of greens and vegetables and tailor their spring mixes for flavor, texture and growing conditions. The result is that every farmer’s mix is different, and a salad of leafy greens can pack a surprising flavor punch.
So what’s in the mix? Wendy Munroe of Full Circle Farm explains that the mixes are usually a combination of baby lettuces and spring greens. The lettuce flavors are mild, and are often chosen for their textures, shapes and colors. The more pungent and spicy flavors in spring mixes come from the “greens” and sometimes from vegetable sprouts such as beet, broccoli, pea and radish.
Lettuces fall into three basic groups but all include both red and green varieties: Romaines have succulent, crispy leaves and earthy flavors; bibbs and butterheads are sweet and very tender; leaf lettuces, which include oak leaf and speckled varieties and frilly lollos, are also tender and very mild in flavor.
The most common greens include spicy arugula, with its bright green, long, lobed leaves; and mild, dark green spinach. But you’ll also find peppery cress, which usually has rounded leaves, though the curly variety can look a bit like parsley; mizuna, a Japanese mustard green with fringed leaves; mild-flavored tatsoi, with smooth, spinach-like leaves; bok choy, a mild mustard-flavored green with a surprising touch of sweetness, smooth leaves and juicy stems; mustard greens, which usually have serrated leaves and come in a variety of strengths; tender, nutty mâche, with its small, rounded, glossy leaves; tangy, lemony, tender-leafed sorrel, which is usually bright green and smooth but sometimes has dark maroon stems and veins; miner’s lettuce, which is mild and tender, with leaves so round they can look almost like lily pads; and radicchio, which has succulent, bright red leaves with white veins, and tastes pleasantly bitter.
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And if that’s not enough, farmers like Gretchen Hoyt at Alm Hill Gardens include edible flowers such as nasturtiums and marigolds, and the flowers from mustard and arugula. Alm Hill’s mix is made up of greens Hoyt chose for their pungency: mizuna, curly cress, arugula, tatsoi, Russian kale and red mustard.
Farmbox Greens, an urban farm in West Seattle, grows all of its greens indoors and harvests micro greens in quantities large enough to sell at farmers markets (most micro greens go straight from the farms to restaurants) within hours of harvest. Its Micro Mix is a blend of peppery greens and includes arugula, pak choi (bok choy), garnet mustard and mizuna. It also has a spicy “Radish Mix” of daikon, red-stemmed and purple radish micro greens.
Depending on the mix, the blends can be sweet, robust, or bold and spicy. When you find a blend you like, you can customize it before you dress it by adding nutty sunflower shoots or sweet-pea shoots, or wild varieties of greens (available from Foraged and Found Edibles) such as watercress, sorrel or miner’s lettuce.
Chef Thierry Rautureau of Luc and Loulay restaurants likes to drizzle olive oil into an empty bowl, dust it with good salt and freshly ground pepper, add a few handfuls of greens, and toss them gently. This way, every leaf gets just barely dressed, and the oil doesn’t get caught in the crevices of the rougher leaves. Rautureau also suggests adding a bit of finely chopped walnuts or shaved radish.
Chef Jerry Traunfeld of Poppy restaurant adds fresh herbs such as chervil, mint or chives to his spring greens, and dresses them lightly with olive oil, sherry vinegar, salt and pepper. Either way, the consensus is that the best way to enjoy the explosion of flavors in a spring mix is to dress them with a light touch.
Leora Y. Bloom is the author of “Washington Food Artisans: Farm Stories and Chef Recipes.”