Like the salads on millions of American dinner tables, the salad on mine growing up was iceberg lettuce. With cucumbers and tomatoes my dad grew in the yard. That’s it. When my mom went wild, there might be a sliced radish, also from the garden.
Seems like another world ago. But even now, there are very few bowls of salad greens, even in fancy-pants restaurants, that compare with the one usually on the salad bar at the Bell Shelter.
Credit Corinne McAndrews, the GrowGood farm manager and lettuce wizard. In late May, for example, there were 15 to 20 varieties of lettuce in the ground at GrowGood farm, with a broad range of tastes, appearances and names — Drunken Woman, Quan Yin, Okayama Salad, Outredgeous, crisp mint, Ear of the Devil, Frank Morton’s Secret Lettuce Mix, and my personal favorite: Grandpa Admires.
There’s a GrowGood mix, too, which changes with the seasons. But the specifics are secret.
Lettuce is generally a cool season crop. And in our Mediterranean climate, McAndrews says, there are some classic lettuce varieties that don't grow well here, including iceberg and Romaine.
“I can’t grow lettuce all year round, but we try” without using too much water and avoid too many pests, McAndrews says, noting that July to October is the toughest time for it. But Quan Yin, for example, grows well in summer. It’s crisp, with a good flavor and is disease-resistant, says McAndrews, who compares it with a sturdy workhorse like a Toyota Camry. By comparison, she calls Forellenschluss lettuce the 1969 Porsche 911 of lettuces. That one is truly beautiful, an heirloom from Austria with romaine-shaped green leaves splashed with red.
GrowGood has both head lettuces and leaf lettuces; the latter often are called “cut and come again,” because the leaves are cut for eating and the plants grow new leaves. Those lettuces can supply five to 10 cuts; head lettuces are thinned two or three times, making room for the remaining heads to grow.
The farm has been able to supply much of the lettuce for the shelter, which uses about 10 pounds a day, says Amie Carillo, the head of the shelter kitchen.
From all the possibilities — and there are dozens — McAndrews looks for lettuce varieties that “are abundant and grow quickly, and something that’s going to taste good.” She also considers the risk of disease and pest resistance. And the seeds planted at GrowGood are always open-pollinated, meaning they are pollinated by bees or birds rather than in labs. GrowGood also often grows heirloom varieties.
Once all of those criteria are met, McAndrews says, “then I start having fun” looking for lettuces that are beautiful and delicious, “lettuce that makes people want to eat it,” lettuce that bears no resemblance to the bits served next to many sandwiches or sold in supermarket produce aisles.
Among the looks and textures, McAndrews says, she considers frilly greens and reds, speckled leaves, stronger leaves and more delicate ones. Also added to the lettuce bowl are purslane, mustards, arugula and flowers.
Some people complain that lettuce takes too much water to grow, but with right varieties, GrowGood’s no-till policy and shade cover, lettuce uses no more water than zucchini or tomatoes, McAndrews says.
On harvest days, we pick lettuces as early as possible, before they start feeling the heat of the sun. They go directly into a tub of cold water for a first washing, then onto a second tub, where they are carefully cleaned a second time. Then into a spinner and into the kitchen, perhaps for that day’s salad bar.
Reviews from the diners have been positive. Come try a bite.
By Mary MacVean