Our Favorite Cool and Crunchy Salad Greens to Try Right Now
Bitter, sweet, spicy, crisp, tender…spring and summer salad greens vary widely in flavor and texture and what is key to a really great salad is knowing how each of them works best. Sheila Jarnes, a chef and food stylist based in Portland, Maine, is always excited when the first tender greens of spring appear at her local market. She has worked in professional kitchens that value locally-sourced produce—including a stint at the storied Chez Panisse in Berkeley, California—and has this advice for prepping salad greens: "One of the biggest lessons I learned at Chez Panisse is to treat greens gently!" she says, "While a salad spinner can be a great tool, it can also damage the leaves...and it's such a shame for them to get bruised." For extra-delicate greens like mâché and watercress, Jarnes prefers to drop them in a basin of cold water, swish them around gently by hand to knock off any grit, then drain them in a colander before laying them out on a towel-lined baking sheet to finish drying.
Now that Jarnes' career is in styling food for editorial and commercial photo shoots, we asked her to walk us through her process for making salads look their very best, "My biggest tip is thinking about the order in which you want to add the ingredients", she says. "If the leaves are really tender, I might gently dress them alone, plate them, and then dress any of the heavier, crunchier ingredients separately." Up next, Jarnes says she will add those heavier ingredients to the plate, "gently dropping them over different areas of the plate, so each ingredient is more or less evenly but 'whimsically' distributed." To finish off the dish, Jarnes will add a few more drizzles of dressing with a spoon, and anything else that will add extra flavor, texture, and color contrast, such as torn fine herbs, nuts, or coarse breadcrumbs. "It's all about layering the flavor and visual elements," she explains.
Once you find your favorite kind of salad green, it's easy to stick with it rather than branch out and try new varieties you've never heard of. Below, find our favorite representatives of all of the various flavors and textures a good salad green can bring to the table. Look for your favorite, then learn about similar greens you may have never heard of or tried before and give them a go in your salads this summer.
If You Like Peppery Greens Such as Arugula, Try Watercress
Arugula has softer leaves and a distinctive peppery bite. It's a workhorse in the kitchen, you can add it to other lettuces for a bolder mix, turn it into a side salad to complement a rich main, stir a handful into a pot of Lemony Pasta with Wilted Arugula, or even whirl it into a sauce to make Arugula Pesto.
Like arugula, watercress has a peppery bite with a hint of mustard on the back end. It's just as bold and versatile, too: use it in a salad like the Watercress, Strawberry, and Toasted-Sesame Salad, pictured at top, or this refreshing version that pairs the peppery green with the flavors of grapefruit and avocado, blend it into an invigorating drink as this Watercress-Buttermilk Cooler does, or enjoy it in this Corn, Watercress, and Potato Soup that is just as delicious served hot as it is chilled.
If You Like Crisp, Sweet Greens Like Iceberg and Romaine, Try Red Leaf or Green Leaf Lettuce
While we'd be hard-pressed to find a better option for iceberg in a classic Wedge Salad, or use anything but romaine in a traditional and timeless Caesar, it's worth trying out alternatives if you are finding yourself bored with the usual lettuce you buy.
Green leaf and red leaf lettuces are often found on the produce shelf under the romaine, with their dramatic ruffled leaves on full display. Both are mild-flavored greens that have a soft yet crunchy texture. While they don't have the major crispness you'd find in iceberg, they makes up for it with their pleasant, slightly earthy flavor. These greens make great additions to sandwiches, are perfect for using as a wrap for fillings like this Ginger-Peanut Turkey Stir-Fry, and are a great bulky "filler" green to use in a simple mixed salad.
If You Like Mild, Delicate Greens Like Spinach, Try Pea Shoots or Mâche
Baby spinach is the chameleon of the salad greens world; it's as delicious in a creamy dip as it is tossed in a light vinaigrette or blended into a nutritious morning smoothie. Mâche and pea shoots are two alternatives that are similarly versatile. Mâche has small, sweet, dark green leaves. It's a rare, gourmet find at the supermarket because of its short shelf-life and more high-maintenance nature. If you snag a bunch at the farmers' market, treat them with care and use them the same day.
Sturdier but just as sweet as mâche are pea shoots. Also known as pea greens they are the tender tips of the pea plant. Use them in bright spring sides like this salad of Pea Shoots, Crisped Pancetta, and Mint Vinaigrette, or use them as a fresh and crunchy garnish for soups, risotto, lamb, or other spring-centric entrées. Pea shoots are also delicious when cooked; whether stirred into a seasonal pasta dish or briefly sautéed like they are in this recipe for Pea Shoots with Garlic.
If You Like Bitter Greens Such as Escarole and Radicchio, Try Frisée and Other Chicories
Frisée is a member of the chicory family which also includes endive, radicchio, and escarole. What sets frilly frisée apart, however, is the unique texture of its leaves that will give instant pep and polish to an ordinary side salad.
Don't mistake its lacy leaves as any indication that it is delicately flavored. Frisée is bold, and while not the most bitter green of the bunch, it does requires some balance to truly shine in a salad. Try it as the French intended: paired with smoky bacon and a poached egg in this classic Lyonnaise Salad.