Forget lettuce. Salad should be an improvisation, a riot of greens, herbs, peas, shoots, and edible flowersless an opening act than a main event.
The anise hyssop plant that my wife and I were given one weekend at Blackberry Farm in Walland, Tennessee, lasted less than six months. During our return trip to New York, we cared for it as if it were a petwatering it, keeping it upright in the car, bringing it inside with us for lunch if the parking lot looked too hot. As soon as we reached our weekend cottage in the Catskills, we planted it in one of the four raised beds I’d built. It didn’t survive the winter. Instead, it jumped.
I give credit to the bees and the breeze: A seed made its way to the corner of another bed, where it found exactly the sun and water it wanted. It flourished, which presented us with a problem. What do you do with so much anise hyssop? We steeped the leaves to make tea (the plant is native to North America and is known as a gentle cure-all), tore it into a garnish for grilled lamb, and made it into a cocktail with simple syrup, club soda, lemon juice, and a splash of gin. Anise hyssop tastes like dusty mint, a flavor less powerful than it is distinctive; it’s so unusual, you need only a little bit to make an impact. One afternoon, I added a few leaves to a salad. I thought it might be interesting.
It was stunning.
The heart-shaped hyssop leaves transformed a bowl of greens from a pretty side course into a dish with so much personality that it became a topic of household conversation. Part of me thought, Really? We’re talking about salad? But another part of me wondered what other overlooked plants might find a place in that bowl. That summer I harvested pea shoots, baby sorrel, the yellow blossoms of wild arugula that went to flower, fennel fronds when they were still pale and soft and tasted sweet. The radishes were sad that year, but their greens were tender and peppery. Every salad became an improvisation. Sometimes the flavors were explosive, sometimes teasingly subtle. By the height of the season, I wasn’t even bothering with lettuce. I thought I was just messing around, getting to know my garden; it turns out I was making a field salad.
“A mesclun salad was really a field salad,” Alice Waters told me recently, remembering the first time she came across one in Nice in the sixties. “They snipped whatever was growing in the fields that day and brought it to the market in a kerchief. You just picked up a handful and put it on the scale.” She explained that you never knew what was going to be in the mix that week, what flavors you were going to find. Every time it was a surprise.
There are no surprises in today’s boxed or bagged mesclun, a supermarket composition that has become so uniform, and so universal, it’s more like a franchise than a salad. It’s always the same combination of bland, hardy lettuces (one red to justify the price) because a jumble of ten or 20 different kinds, each with its own life cycle, wouldn’t last long on the shelf.
I never set out to rethink supermarket mesclun or re-create what Waters found in Nice. I wasn’t trying to follow anybody else’s path. Instead, I was figuring out what strange flavors I could foster in our short Catskills growing season. The following year, I planted chervil, chickweed, miner’s lettuce, italiko rosso, and Russian kale. A neighbor just back from Japan gave us packets of seeds, one of which was shiso (I recognized the drawing), the rest botanical mysteries. I planted them too. I tasted one of the clovers behind the cottage and identified it as wood sorrel. That year, purslane was the It plant at New York City green markets, and I realized that Manhattanites were paying good money for what I had been weeding from my garden beds.
Soon every salad I made was a riot of flavors and textures. Even though I knew what went into the bowl, I didn’t know what was going to be in each bite. I wasn’t in controlnobody is in control of a field salad. Every weekend I harvested what we had and wondered what I was going to find next.
There are two ways to dress a field salad: Go light or go heavy.
Christopher Kostow, the chef of Meadowood in Napa Valley and one of two California chefs (Thomas Keller is the other) to be awarded three Michelin stars, is delicate with his purslane. (He favors the French word pourpier and uses two kinds, Golden Goldberg and Red Gruner.) “Some of it we just grab from wherever, as it grows everywhere,” Kostow told me. “Some we cultivate in the greenhouse to be able to control the size a bit more. For me, the thickness really determines how much acid it needs. The small, wispy stuff doesn’t need much, as it wilts pretty quick and has a great minerality to it.” Kostow dresses his purslane with a vinaigrette made with pickled limes from the Cultured Pickle Shop in Berkeley and serves it with lamb baked in Calistoga clay.
Purslane’s crunchy leaves have a pleasantly lemony taste, but the more mature plants have spindly stems that call for a little denaturing. Usually I’ll dress the plant separately and drizzle it with vincotto (sweet, syrupy, and made with grape must), then add the leafy greens on top. Since purslane stands up to strong flavors, I’ll sometimes add slices of nectarines or plums, a pinch of sea salt, some toasted hazelnuts, a little blue cheese if there’s any around.
It’s a good salad to have in the arsenal. Because almost any kind of fruit, nut, and strong cheese will do, it adapts to what you have on hand. One summer, my wife and I were spending the weekend with friends in Brookhaven, New York, and I noticed some purslane growing between the flagstones by their pool. “Want me to make a salad?” I asked.
Kostow uses richer flavors with red and green orache, which have arrow-shaped leaves that taste like seasoned spinach. At Meadowood, he serves them with lardo and caviar warmed over a fire as a part of the 20-course tasting menu. Carlo Mirarchi, the chef at Roberta’s (the ascendant Brooklyn restaurant that was one of the pioneers of urban gardening) and Blanca (which earned its first Michelin star shortly after its opening, in 2012), also plays with stronger dressings. “A lot of people consider leafy vegetables to be a light flavor, but you can get some deep flavors that make them as satisfying as anything else out there,” Mirarchi told me. “There are a lot of ways to think about vinaigrettes. Like, I love nut milk. Nut milks can take on a good amount of acid. Use whatever you want Banyuls vinegar, lemon juiceand some olive oil. It thickens almost like a buttermilk.” Mirarchi makes his own nut milks for his dressing, but then he would; you can use a shortcut and buy them fresh. (Try Organic Avenue in New York City.)
Sometimes Mirarchi will dress a salad, then dot it with a quick salsa verde made out of shiso, garlic, white balsamic, and olive oil, so that the tiny, explosive touches of flavor play off the strong flavors of dogtooth violet or chrysanthemum or celery-like lovage. Or he’ll sneak in fruit: green strawberries, ripe strawberries, huckleberries, blueberries, ground cherries, persimmon. Roberta’s has a fig tree that Mirarchi drags indoors during the winter, and in the late summer he will freeze ripe figs for an hour, then shave them over the salad with a microplane rasp. “It gets fig flavor everywhere,” he said.
These are strange combinations, bright and herbaceous flavors you find on the other side of the spectrum from pork belly, 21-day aged burgers, and the other meaty, chest-thumping dishes that are understandably popular right now. Anise hyssop, purslane, orache, lovage? Not macho. But they’re originalat least they are at this moment in foodand they will dazzle even the most seasoned palate: They remind you that there are still flavors out there you have yet to experience.
“When you have a salad like that, it’s like you’re some woodland creature jumping around eating all this weird stuff,” Mirarchi told me. “It’s really fun, and it gets you excited to have your next course.”
If the ideal shelter-magazine kitchen garden is as crisp and stylized as a new haircut, the garden outside the house that Madeleine Fitzpatrick shares with Evan Shively north of Point Reyes Station, California, is what happened to your hair after a motorcycle ride on the coastal highway in the sixties, before the helmet laws. It’s not so much overgrown as it is untamed, a sensual bounty. You want to run your hands through it.
Many of the plants look like weeds, which is exactly the idea. “I teach the plants to become wild again,” says Fitzpatrick, who worked at the Farallones Institute in Sonoma County in the eighties (it’s now called the Occidental Arts and Ecology Center), when it supplied Chez Panisse and other Bay Area restaurants. “I encourage things to become a weed, because they’re all weeds somewhere in the world. MAcentsche is a weed.” She lets some plants go feral, saves the seeds of others, and takes note of which ones play well together. “There are some plants that are happier around other plants, and you’re not sure what plants they’re happier around until they let you know. There’s always a mystery in the garden, which I love, but it’s a cultivated garden, so there’s some control.”
Fitzpatrick grows hundreds of different plants (though she’s never stopped to count), many with names so fanciful they sound made-upbuckhorn plantain, curly mallow, Iranian cress, oxalis, red-veined dock, salad burnet, smallage. (When I asked her to try an inventory, she sent me a list of more than 100 she uses in salads before signing off, “Believe it or not, there are more, but I’m pooped.”) We tried to remember what was in the salad she made for a dinner at her house last year, but we kept losing our way. Were there 35 different plants? More, probably. It was a good year for the garden.
Shively puts it more succinctly: He calls it the What the Fuck Did I Just Eat? salad. Fitzpatrick and Shively have emeritus status in the food world, as former professionals who did the heavy lifting during the Bay Area culinary revolutions of the eighties and nineties. (Shively was at Oliveto shortly after it opened, worked in the kitchen at Postrio during the go-go nineties, and then became cochef at Manka’s Inverness Lodge.) Now they cook mostly for their friendsand receiving a dinner invitation means instantly clearing your schedule. When I was at their house last year, the other guests included chefs, artists, writers, patrons: Susie Tompkins Buell, the philanthropist; Russell Chatham, the writer and painter; David Kinch, the chef of Manresa; Pim Techamuanvivit, the jam-maker and food writer; Michael Tusk, the chef of Quince. The house, which is two metal barracks joined by a two-story tropical greenhouse with a restaurant-grade kitchen, is in the empty hills that rise behind Tomales Bay. It’s a stunning drive, and lonely.
First we had pizzas outside from Shively’s wood-burning oven, maybe eight different kinds. After it was too dark to see, we went into the kitchen and snacked on steamed spot prawns, striped bass tartare with salted lemon, chilled mussels with absinthe mayonnaise, steelhead roe with chervil and crA[umlaut]me fraA[R]che. Then we sat down for dinner.
The salad course arrived in tall, unruly piles. The house rule: You eat it with your fingers. “It allows you to eat the salad a leaf at a time, or to combine specific flavors, in a way that a fork does not,” Fitzpatrick told me. If you need a utensil, she said, try chopsticks.
What were we eating with our fingers? Some flowers (variegated nasturtium; calendula; cherry and pear blossoms), herbs (five kinds of basil; two kinds of chives; golden marjoram; tarragon; mint tips; silver thyme), small, sweet cooking greens (beet leaves; four kinds of chard; five kinds of kale), and many, many other leaves, stems, and pods.
Cataloging them is useless; it’s like trying to identify what individual instruments are playing when the orchestra warms up. At some point, a field salad stops being a saladit’s a brain-twister, it’s a foreign country, it’s memory. The flavors are so vivid you almost see them as you taste them. Soon we were as silent as woodland creatures at Evan and Madeleine’s table, eating all this weird stuff with our fingers. It was just part of the meal, a course between courses, but none of us wanted it to end.