Salads are often thought of as food for summer days. Indeed they are then often most welcome when hot weather makes heavy cooked meals seem unappetizing. But in many ways we need to eat more salads at this time of year when the range of fresh fruit and vegetables is so much reduced. It is easy for us to slip into a nutritional rut with our meals. We can find ourselves piling on the potatoes and pasta, filling up with stews and casseroles, eating far more dairy products, meat and fats, all in order to fend off the cold. There is an element of comfort eating and a great tendency for us all to put on the pounds, aggravated by the lack of exercise as the winter weather keeps us from doing as much gardening as we manage at gentler times of year.
And it is right now when we most need fresh salad crops. The very limited range of stored and fresh crops means we simply do not get enough vitamins and minerals to help us digest all that stodge we tend almost inevitably to fill up on. We no longer get those little snacks fresh from the garden while we work. (Maybe you do not graze like me but one day I counted the number of different leaves, herbs, soft fruits and so on that I nibbled during a few summer hours in my garden and it amounted to over two dozen different totally fresh items, each small but nutritionally valuable.)
Indeed I find that I often cannot be bothered with salads at all during the summer months simply because I get so much fresh fodder. Right now though I crave for fresh green titbits, for anything other than fried, steamed, boiled and baked foods. Ironically my desire for tomatoes now is many times that of my wish to eat them when they were ripening naturally. Likewise for sweet peppers and cucumbers, I love them year round but it is now, when they are hardest to produce, that I want them the most.
Our ancestors were even more aware of their cravings for winter chlorophyll and turned to collecting herbs and simples from the wild. These were pounded to a slurry and then consumed as green gloop to help balance the interminable succession of salted meat and dried fish. Though they also consumed far more cabbages and coles than most of us could stomach they needed even more greens to help them deal with the excess of salt in their very restricted diet. And of course before the last few centuries they would not have had so many useful stored crops- until Columbus there were no potatoes, no dried haricot beans, no maize corn, no pumpkins or winter squash.
Of course we have the advantages of improved and effective preserving methods especially the home deep freezer. With this we can have almost any crop keep until we want to eat it, though the texture may have changed at least some of the flavour and nutrition is retained. However, no matter how much asparagus or strawberries you have in the freezer, these do not satisfy in the same way as really fresh food, and especially those precious winter salads.
Those crops stored semi-fresh; out of the ground, such as carrots, beets and hard white and red cabbages have considerable value but never as much as those still alive in the soil. And possession of good cloches, a greenhouse or plastic tunnel adds to the number and quality of these really fresh crops so considerably I believe we should be given them by the NHS. Without some sort of cover it is nigh on impossible to have the best of the leafy salad crops as the weather beating and splattering mud make them unpalatable even if they survive. Put plants under a cloche or inside and they stay clean, succulent and palatable.
Probably the most valuable of all is Rocket, Eruca sativus. Extremely nutritious and very tasty this was banned in monasteries as ‘provoking lustful thoughts’ –they certainly recognized it’s health giving power there! Rocket will germinate in situ under cover most of the year round but like many other saladings is more reliable started off in cells in a heated propagator and transplanted out. And just as during the summer it is much better if small batches are sown every few weeks rather than one bigger one less often. The younger leaves are more succulent and less hot than on bigger older plants; though if cut back these can often give another flush before being pulled. I have tried most varieties of Rocket and find little to differentiate any other than the ‘wild’. This does have a different, hotter flavour but should not be left as it is a deep rooting perennial weed hard to extinguish whereas the usual Rockets flower and die away. (The Turkish Rocket, Bunius orientalis, is a bigger spear leaved perennial more suited to planting in borders for use as a spring spinach though with a cloche it can be brought on to produce small leaves in late winter.)
Claytonia (now Montia) perfoliata, Miner’s Lettuce, is to my mind the next most valuable fresh winter crop. This is without much doubt a weed in cool damp places but in a greenhouse it dies out and disappears with the warmth and dryness of the summer months and then reappears as the days cool and lengthen. I have not sown it for years as it self sows perpetually. The odd, almost square leaves are succulent and with no heat or bitterness make them the perfect balance for rocket. Far too unknown this little plant is equally edible even when in flower never getting tough. It is beloved by my hens and makes great winter ground cover and an excellent green manure even in the open.
Valerianella, Corn salad, Mache′ to the French, is similar in habit but not quite as invasive. This is best sown in the autumn or in a propagator and planted out, the leaves are bland and pleasant but not as productive as Claytonia. This also makes a good green manure in the open but is then rarely palatable. Corn salad needs a warm rich moist soil under cover to be worth eating but is then another culinary gem.
Likewise for the hardy winter lettuces. Unless grown well under some form of protection these are too miserable and bitter to be worthwhile. Although some heading varieties are possible it is more sensible and economic to grow hardy mixtures of the cut and come again loose-leaf varieties as these are far more productive. I find the red sorts seem slightly more reliable than the green. These can be sown year round in a propagator and planted out but make sure the propagator is not too hot as lettuce is reluctant to germinate if the temperature is high (above the mid sixties Fahrenheit).
Not quite as useful but even quicker and easier are mustard and cress though these are much simpler, and cleaner, grown on wet cloth on the benches or staging than in the ground. So easy yet so little grown these ought to be sown on trays in every window sill in the land. Perhaps the NHS should send out ‘just add water’ packs of Cress and Mustard to all of us each and every week and then we might need their services less often!
Then there are the bigger Mustards; all the Chinese Mustards, or Mustard Greens, Brassica juncea, known by a multitude of names these highly variable leaves have one thing in common; their heat. I find them far less palatable than Rocket but they are about as easy to grow. Again they need to be grown quickly to be at all desirable. And really with all of these I think our seedsmen have been duplicious as these were originally eaten cooked in stir fries etc. far more than as raw saladings. Very similar in this way is the edible Chrysanthemum, C. coronarium, Shungi-ku, hardy under cover this has odd tasting leaves good for stir fries but that can be used in salads in moderation when young and tender along with the yellow petals.
Many herbs most often used for flavouring are also useful for adding to salads. They can be chopped fine and added in moderation from bushes outdoors, but those under cover are always tenderer and better flavoured. So pot up Rosemary, Thyme, Sage, Parsley and even Lavender in the autumn to bring under cover before the hardest weather makes them tough. Chervil is a really valuable herb, similar to parsley this has a mild slightly aniseed flavour and quite large amounts can be mixed into green salads without the flavour overwhelming. Reluctant outdoors it thrives under cover. Rather than growing fewer bigger plants this should be sown thick like rocket and taken young. As should Spring onions, though slow to grow several varieties of these are very hardy and from autumn and winter sowings you can enjoy them non-stop –if you devote enough area to them. Chives are an easier alternative, these will go dormant even under cover so are best grown outdoors, then dug and brought under cover to force them into leaf. Likewise for Parsley though the latter fares better if originally grown in pots as it then moves easier with less check. Mint can have roots dug at any time, potted up and a move indoors soon gives leaves for adding to salads bringing a really unique flavour at these bland times. And if you have covered over their roots with a thick mulch you can dig and bring in some Celery to force for a crop of little leaves. This, as well as Parsley and Dill, can also be sown thickly in pots in a heated propagator to give crops of very small tasty leaves.
A task not easy but rewarding is to grow Chicory to force the roots in the warm and dark into making those tight packed conical shoots of blanched leaves so beloved of French chefs in winter and so little known here. With this forcing you don’t want light so an airing cupboard or even under your bed can become a productive cropping area. You can also force Seakale, Rhubarb and even Asparagus into production right now, though only the latter is useful raw in salads. Some gourmets also enjoy the forced blanched leaves of Beetroot, Turnips, Scorzonera, Garlic, Onions and even Horseradish!
From our stores we can add grated Cabbage, Carrot, Kohl rabi and Beetroot, and of course Apple. From the open garden there are the tiny leaves of Curly Kale available in all except the severest winters. And of course Leeks. What as a salad? Oh yes, try boiling them in stock marinating them overnight in parsley and vinegar and then having them sliced in your salad, gorgeous!
Reckoned easy but to my mind a waste of space are the common Radish. Some love them but I reckon there is no crop so often sown that is so rarely eaten. In order to have these in edible condition it is necessary to have warm cover as in cold soil they will not even germinate, and grow slowly getting hot and tough. An alternative to fresh winter radish is to grow Spanish and Chinese radish in the autumn and to store these somewhere frost free but cool.