Are all salads created equal?
Not when it comes to the matter of nutrition. Though we may feel as though we are getting our dose of greens by eating a pile of lettuce, modern iceberg-types are really no more than water held together with cellulose. For a salad that ticks all the nutrient boxes, you need to mix it up a bit.
This returns us to a way of eating that would have been familiar to people 300 years ago. A wide variety of leaves were grown in gardens and many of these older salad ingredients were things that could be gathered from the wild by the discerning forager. As this recipe from 1665 demonstrates, a wide variety of ingredients in a salad was the standard.
All sorts of good herbs, the little leaves of red sage, the smallest leaves of sorrel, and the leaves of parsley pickt very small, the youngest and smallest leaves of spinage, some leaves of burnet, the smallest leaves of lettice, white endive and charvel all finely pick’t and washed… then dish it in a clean scowred dish, and about the centre capers, currans, olives, lemons carved and slic’t, boil’d beet-roots carved and slic’t, and dished round also with good oyl and vinegar.
Having looked at the raw data on the nutrient content of leafy salads, it’s been interesting to see that all (bar the poor iceberg) take a turn at the top of the table for something or other. One of my favourite salad leaves is radicchio – the bright red leaves with their distinctive sweet/bitter balance really enliven the bowl. However, I now discover that it is nutritionally very poor for everything, apart from in vitamin E, where a decent portion will make a serious dent in your recommended daily amount.
Did you know that there’s eight times as much calcium in rocket leaves than in iceberg lettuces and kale has a whopping 40 times as much vitamin C and 20 times as much vitamin A than the former. Parsley contains 15 times as much iron as iceberg lettuces, which is a good excuse to stop treating it like a garnish and start throwing generous handfuls into omelettes and tabouli.
Time to sow
Now is the time to be thinking about sowing many of these leaves. Rocket, chervil, radicchio, kale, spinach, beet leaves and purslane are all best sown little and often to get a steady supply. You could even experiment with mixing together the seeds and scattering in a prepared area, and then cutting the whole lot down with scissors when they get to an eatable size. This is the basis of a ‘Mesclun’ salad mix. You can buy ready mixed seed from various suppliers, but more fun to tailor your mix to your own tastes. You can get some great harvests from tiny spaces using this method as the leaves are cut young so they don’t need lots of soil.
Parsley and sorrel on the other hand can be very slow to get going and would be out-competed in a mix of faster growing salads, so start off a few plants indoors, then plant outside. You’ll be able to take regular harvests from these plants right through to autumn. If you want a whole head of radicchio, endive or lettuce (yes, even iceberg if you must) then you’ll need to give them much more space to make hearts and I prefer to start plants off in pots first, then plant out at the required spacing. The added bonus with the radicchio is that if you cut the head leaving the root in the ground, it will keep sprouting smaller heads, which will keep you going through to the following spring.
You’d still need to eat a lot of any of these leaves to make any serious contribution to your overall daily nutrition requirements, but if you are going eat a big plate of salad, it’s nice to know that it is as good as can be.