The Daily Salad
Which herbs can be used in salads?
Now we’re talking about one of my favorite ways to use herbs fresh from the garden—the salad bowl. I grew up in a household where we had salad every night for dinner, and it was my job to fix it. Our salads consisted of iceberg lettuce and maybe a tomato. Today, my salads are much more creative, but they’re still a daily fixture in my life.
Any herb that’s edible (which simply means it’s not poisonous) and whose taste you enjoy can be tossed in a salad. Herbs are a fabulous way to enhance the taste, texture, and nutritional value of a salad. They play off nicely against the rather bland and neutral taste of most lettuces. I especially enjoy salads that are a mix of diversified flavors, lettuces and herbs tossed together and lightly dressed, so that the flavors blend together in my mouth and every bite is an adventure.
Debbie Whittaker’s story on page 42 mentions the peppery flavors of arugula, nasturtium, and cress, all excellent accents in a salad, but there are many more. Here are some suggested salad fixings that can be used fresh from the garden.
• Parsley. Both the frilly and the plain-leaved varieties can be used either chopped or torn into bite-sized pieces. This familiar herb is high in vitamins A, B1, B2, and C as well as niacin, calcium, and iron. Wash this herb well before you use it, especially the curly-leaved variety.
• Basil. The many varieties of basil add flavor and color to a salad. The large-leaved varieties, including one called ‘Lettuce Leaf’, are good in salads, torn into bite-sized pieces; the purple-leaved ones add a splash of color; and the spicy-flavored basils such as ‘Siam Queen’ and ‘Licorice’ add a punchy accent. There are also lemon-flavored basils that work nicely in a salad. Experiment.
• Lovage. This herb tastes a bit like celery, and its chopped leaves and stems are a good addition to salads. Some people don’t like the taste of lovage and consider it “soapy-tasting,” but try it for yourself.
• Lemon herbs. These include lemon balm, lemon verbena, lemon thyme, lemon bee balm, and others. Lemon is a bright and fresh flavor, perfect for salads.
• Edible flowers. There are many options here to turn your salad into a masterpiece. The bright, almost gaudy yellow-orange petals of the calendula flower look like confetti sprinkled across the salad bowl. Try blue borage flowers and violets as well.
• Chervil and tarragon. These delicate anise flavors are especially good in a salad because they’re best eaten fresh and can’t hold up to long cooking. Chervil has a lacy leaf that’s as beautiful in a salad bowl as it is in the garden, and its flowers can be used as well.
• Mints. There are many mints to choose from that will lend a different character and fragrance to the salad bowl. Try the familiar peppermint and spearmint as well as the fruit-scented mints.
• Chives. Snip these leaves and flowers right into the bowl. The mild oniony flavor is a delicious accent.
There are many other herbs that would work well in salads. Herbs from the garden can make each salad a little different. The small but regular harvesting is good for my plants, making them bush out and compact when I prune the sprawl for the salad.
Because culinary herbs are destined to be eaten, don’t use any kind of pesticides or herbicides on your herb garden. Be sure to wash the herb leaves well, even if they look clean. Dry them well so that the salad dressing will adhere to the leaves.
Right before you’re ready to eat, mix up some dressing and add it to the bowl, tossing lightly to coat all the leaves. Go easy on the salad dressing so that you don’t drown out the flavors. I like the light, bright taste of an oil-and-vinegar-based dressing or a simple splash of a flavored vinegar.
Kathleen Halloran, former editor of The Herb Companion, is a freelance writer living in Las Vegas, Nevada.