Lettuce, glorious lettuce!

by Mary Bailey

We’ve come a long way since the days of iceberg and leaf lettuce being the only heads in the lettuce aisle. We’ve come to know and love the Asian mizuma, the gentle French mache, the cos family; rouge d’iver, romaine and little gem, and the bitter Italians cicoria radicchio and dentarella.

We’re on a first-name basis with Drunken Woman, Lollo Rossa and Amish deer tongue.

What we know now is that these stunningly beautiful and tasty greens are generally best all by themselves, not laden down with flavoured dressings but dressed only in salt and a good oil, the natural bitterness of arugula or mesclun greens for example, not needing vinegar. The sweeter greens such as mache and butter do love a classic vinaigrette.

Where to find these beauties? In your own backyard garden, in community gardens across the city, from Lactuca and other farmers markets stands, not treated with chlorine so they’ll keep, just given a shake or a quick rinse to get rid of the sand, then chilled.

Once you’ve tried lettuce a few hours from the ground you’ll never go back.

Enjoy your greens with a simple treatment and devote kitchen time to the other salads of summer, with fruit, cheese, fish or chicken.

classic vinaigrette

Serve with pristine leaves of all sorts such as oakleaf, cos, butter or drunken woman.

3 T extra virgin olive oil
1 T white wine vinegar

Place all in the bottom of a salad bowl and whisk until emulsified, about 30 seconds. Place washed and dried salad leaves in the bowl, toss and serve immediately.

grilled romaine

Grilling romaine, or any vegetable for that matter, brings on a host of charred flavours while enhancing the sweetness of the vegetable. This salad is an easy and excellent partner to good beef or bison steaks on the grill.

4 strips Irvings Farm or Acme Meats bacon
2 T canola oil
2 T fresh squeezed lemon juice
2 T Worcestershire sauce
2-3 heads romaine lettuce, halved lengthwise, rinsed and dried
sea salt and fresh-cracked black pepper, to taste
½ c crumbled (or rough-grated) Parmigiano Reggiano

Cook bacon, reserving 2 t drippings. Transfer the cooked bacon to a paper towel-lined plate to drain. When cool, crumble and reserve.

Transfer the reserved drippings to a bowl. Add oil, lemon juice and Worcestershire; whisk until smooth and fully emulsified. Check for seasoning and reserve.

Build a medium-hot fire in a charcoal grill or heat a gas grill to medium-high. (Or, heat a cast-iron grill pan over medium-high heat.) Place romaine halves cut-side down on the grill and cook, turning once, until charred and slightly wilted, about 4 minutes. Discard any overly burnt outer leaves.

Transfer lettuce cut-side up to a serving platter. Season with pepper; drizzle dressing, and toss bacon and cheese over. Serve immediately while still hot.

Serves 4-6.

peanut cabbage slaw with peanut dressing

This slaw lends a south-east Asian flavour to burgers, pork skewers or chicken on the grill.


6 c thinly sliced cabbage (a mix of green and white looks great)
1 med. carrot cut into thin batons or grated.
1/3 c thin sliced green onions

peanut dressing

3 T crunchy peanut butter (for the freshest taste, look for brands that are just peanuts and salt)
2 T warm water
3 T rice or white vinegar (if using white vinegar add ½ t of sugar)
2 T fresh squeezed lime juice
1 T minced fresh ginger
drizzle fish sauce (about ½ t) optional
1½ t (a good shake) Sriracha

Blend peanut butter and water together in a bowl until creamy.

Add the rest of the ingredients and whisk to blend. Check for seasoning, adding more lime juice, fish sauce, or hot sauce to taste. It should be tangy with a bit of heat. Toss with the cabbage, carrot and onion, chill if desired and serve same day.

insalata caprese/ caprese salad

Don’t even think about making this until tomatoes are in high season, dead ripe off the vine. Buy the best fiore de latte (young cows milk mozzarella) you can find and use the fruitiest, tangiest extra virgin olive oil you can get your hands on. When a dish is this simple the ingredients have to be spectacular. Otherwise, why bother?

4 large ripe tomatoes, sliced about 1/4 inch thick
1 lb fresh mozzarella, sliced ¼ inch thick
handful fresh basil leaves
3-4 T extra-virgin olive oil
sea salt and fresh crack black pepper to taste

Alternate and overlap tomato and mozzarella slices on an attractive platter. Tear basil leaves over. Drizzle with oil and season to taste. Serve immediately. Serves 4-6.

smoked mackerel and potato salad

The optometrist said to eat more mackerel, for the omega 3s. (Twice as much per salmon and mackerel is known to be low in possible mercury contamination.) The lady in the cashier’s line at the Italian Centre had a smoked mackerel. I asked her what she was going to do with it. She said; ‘make a potato salad.’ She described making a salad with new potatoes, fresh herbs, chunks of smoked mackerel and cukes in a mustardy dressing.

2 c sml waxy potatoes such as fingerlings, bintje, or banana
juice from 1 lemon, or 4 t champagne vinegar
2 T Dijon mustard
1 sml shallot, sliced thin
4 t olive oil
2 T fresh dill, chopped
1 sml fresh garden cucumber, sliced
fresh-cracked pepper
1 smoked mackerel (approx 12 ounces) broken into bite-size pieces
salad greens, washed and spun dried

Steam or boil potatoes in salted water until tender, about 12-15 minutes. Drain and let cool slightly. Cut potatoes in half or quarters, if desired.

While the potatoes are cooking, make the dressing. In a medium bowl, combine shallot, juice or vinegar and mustard, then whisk in oil until emulsified. Add the dill.

Add cucumber and cooked potatoes to the dressing in the bowl and toss to coat. Season to taste.

To serve: Place greens on four plates, top with potato/cucumber mixture and arrange mackerel on each.

Serves 4.

pork and shrimp noodle salad

This is an excellent picnic or boxed lunch salad. Keep chilled and give it a toss before serving to blend flavours.

1 sml package glass noodles
½ pkg ground pork (about 200 g)
2 t five-spice powder
5 T canola oil
2 cloves garlic, chopped fine
1 T grated fresh ginger
6 large shrimp
2 t sugar
3-4 spring onions, finely sliced
3 T fresh lime juice
1 T fish sauce
2 bird chillies (small red chillies) deseeded and finely sliced
1 handful fresh coriander, chopped
1 handful flat leaf parsley, chopped
1 handful fresh mint, chopped
2 handsful roasted peanuts (optional)
sea salt

Soak the noodles in a bowl of warm water until soft, then drain and put back in the bowl. In a hot wok fry the pork with five spice powder in oil until brown, then add garlic, ginger, prawns and sugar. Stir-fry for another 4 minutes. Remove from heat and stir the wok mixture into the noodles. Add the spring onions, lime juice, fish sauce, chilies, coriander, mint and peanuts to the bowl. Toss well. Taste for seasoning, adding salt and more lime juice if necessary — it should be quite limey. Serve cold with extra herb leaves if desired.

Serves 6 as part of a picnic menu.

chicken salad in a roquefort mayonnaise

A good chicken salad transcends time. This one is elegant, pretty and full of flavour. A word on substitutions; making with anything other than a good blue cheese upsets the balance of the dish. But you could serve a version for a summer lunch—sliced cold chicken with grapes and nuts scattered and dressing napped over. Adapted from The Silver Palate Good Times Cookbook.

4 whole chicken breasts (8 halves) poached and skinned
1 c diced celery
1½ c seedless green grapes
1 c pecan halves, toasted
salad leaves (optional)
1 recipe Roquefort mayonnaise (recipe follows)

Cut the chicken into 1-inch chunks, then combine with celery, grapes and pecans in a large bowl.
Make the mayonnaise. Toss the chicken mixture with the mayonnaise and refrigerate until cold. Serve on mixed salad greens if desired.

roquefort mayonnaise

2 egg yolks
1 T dijon mustard
2 T sherry vinegar
1½ c canola oil
1 c crumbled Roquefort
sea salt and fresh-cracked pepper

Process egg yolks, mustard and vinegar in a blender for about 30 seconds. With the machine running, pour the oil in a thin steady stream to emulsify. When thick and smooth pulse-in (of fold in by hand) the Roquefort and process until combined but still a bit chunky. Season to taste. Keep chilled.

Serves 6-8

beet and plum salad with cheesiry fresca

This is a salad for mid-summer, when the first small tender beets are showing up at the farmers’ markets and fresh juicy BC plums are in abundance. It’s also a salad that will reward the use of premium balsamico, the traditional balsamic vinegar of Modena DOP, the stuff that comes in the groovy glass bottle designed by Guigiaro, the epic car designer of the century, and costs the earth (but you only need a drizzle).

2-3 small to medium red beets trimmed, scrubbed, skins on
2 fresh ripe red or black plums, pitted and cut into wedges
½ c Cheesiry Fresca (if don’t have, use goat cheese or fresh ricotta)
1 T balsamico DOP or 3 T balsamic reduction (recipe follows)
2-3 T extra-virgin olive oil
sea salt and fresh-cracked pepper
¼ c fresh basil leaves
1 c balsamic vinegar
1 T honey
1 bay leaf

Steam beets until tender when pierced with a sharp knife, about 20 minutes. Let cool, then remove skins and cut into wedges about the same size as the plums.

 balsamic reduction

Pour the balsamic vinegar into a heavy bottomed saucepan and place over moderate heat. Stir in the honey, bay leaf and bring to a low boil. Lower heat to simmer and allow the mixture to reduce slowly. After about a half hour, the mixture will have reduced to about half its original volume. Watching closely, allow it to reduce to 1/3 original volume, then take off the heat, fish out the bay leaf, cool and use immediately. Keep any portions not used for about two weeks in the fridge; it will thicken, but microwaving restores drizzleability.

To serve: arrange beets and plums on a large plate. Drizzle balsamic over, scatter cheese on the plums and beets (otherwise the cheese will turn pink). Drizzle oil over. Season with salt and pepper, top with torn basil leaves, and serve immediately.Serves 4.

grilled vegetable salad

In mid-summer, when the Italian Centre starts to fill with the heady aromas of field peppers, it’s time to take advantage of the bounty and grill peppers. When you get bored of peppers on their own (if that’s even possible) add in some other vegetables, herbs, a shake of hot sauce or some maple syrup. There is no real recipe, just a suggestion of what might work well with each other. Choose what looks good from the market or your garden, as few vegetables don’t benefit from a turn over open fire, (except maybe peas and beans; shell, then toss in raw for a textural and colour surprise). A few tips: remember to keep the vegetables that take longer to cook, onion and potatoes for example, in bite-sized pieces; small whole tomatoes work better than large sliced tomatoes; and you can freeze grilled vegetables to bring the memory of summer days to the depths of winter.

In bowl, toss vegetables herbs, oil and lemon juice. Place in a grill pan and grill over medium-high heat; close lid and cook, turning once, for 12 to 14 minutes or until tender. Check seasoning, adding more herbs, salt and pepper and lemon juice if needed. Serve hot or cold on salad greens.

2-3 sweet red yellow or orange peppers cut in large bite-sized pieces
2 zucchini, sliced
1 c pattypan squash, halved
1 red onion, sliced, or cut in 1/8 quarters
1 pkg whole small tomatoes
1 head garlic, peeled and broken in cloves
1 c small new potatoes (optional)
1 sprig fresh thyme (leaves only, minced)
1 T chopped fresh rosemary
2-3 T canola or extra virgin olive oil
fresh squeezed lemon juice
sea salt and fresh-cracked pepper
1 handful fresh mint chopped (optional)

Green Goddess Dressing

Drizzled on greens, tossed with potatoes, slathered on a sandwich, or poured over roast veg, this old school dressing is a winner. Vegans could use tahini instead of mayo and skip the dairy and anchovies. If the anchovies are giving you pause altogether, try using one fillet to start; it lends the dressing a depth and complexity of flavour that is not fishy, just delicious.

1/2 c mayonnaise
1/3 c buttermilk or plain yogurt
1/4 c chopped fresh chives or green onion, chopped fine
1/4 c coarsely chopped flat-leaf parsley
1 T chopped fresh tarragon
a few leaves fresh basil, chopped
½ sprig fresh thyme, leaves only chopped fine
1 T fresh lemon juice
2 anchovy fillets packed in oil, drained and chopped fine
1 garlic clove chopped fine
sea salt and fresh-cracked black pepper

Purée all ingredients but seasoning until smooth. Season and pulse once more. Cover, chill and use same day.