Mother Earth Living

A Field Guide to Salad Greens

From the bitter bite of zesty arugula to the cool, crisp crunch of iceberg, our guide to greens will help you use any local harvest to build a better salad.
By Tabitha Alterman
May/June 2011
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Photo By Povy Kendal Atchison

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When greens are at their peak, even our favorite go-to salads can get boring. But by taking advantage of greens’ wide array of textures, flavors and colors, then adding our favorite fruits and veggies, we can create an almost limitless number of yummy meal combinations. Try the classics such as mushrooms, radishes, tomatoes and onions; the flavorful burst of whole berries or peas; the bold taste of roasted beets, marinated artichokes or olives; or the garden touch of freshly picked herbs or edible flowers. For a heartier meal, add shredded or crumbled cheese, sliced avocado, hard-boiled eggs, grilled chicken, smoked fish, beans, edamame, or toasted nuts and seeds. Understanding the differences in greens will help you build a foundation for limitless taste combinations.

Greens Glossary 

Our guide ranges from common lettuces to wild-harvested bitter greens. You will find many of these options at farmer’s markets, and most are easy to grow.

Arugula: Tender, bitter, peppery

Beet Tops: Best when young; sweet, juicy, purple-splashed leaves

Bladder Campion: Silvery-green shoots with tiny pods (bladders); nutty flavor; wild-harvested

Butterhead: Bibb and Boston lettuce; sweet and buttery leaves
Cabbage: Green or red/purple heads; crunchy and sweet

Claytonia: Also known as “miner’s lettuce”; small, sweet and succulent; usually wild-harvested

Dandelion: Narrow, jagged, bitter greens; small, young leaves best

Endive: Narrow heads with crisp, curved leaves; mildly sweet to slightly bitter; the paler the leaf, the milder the flavor

Escarole: Frilly, crunchy, wide leaves with mild flavor

Frisée: Curly, green, slightly peppery “leaves”

Green/Red Leaf: Flavorful green, red-tipped or red-speckled leaves

Iceberg: The least nutritious of all greens; pale leaves with mild flavor

Kale: Crinkled, deep green to purple leaves; mild cabbage flavor

Lollo Rosso: Ruffled leaves with red edges; mild but flavorful

Mâche/Corn Salad: Succulent leaves; tremendous nutty flavor; ‘Golden’ variety among the best

Mizuna: Tender Japanese mustard green; peppery and spicy

Mustard: Large, ruffled greens with a bold flavor

Napa Cabbage: Narrow green and white leaves; crunchy, sweet

Nasturtium: Pretty round leaves with peppery bite

Oakleaf: Sweet green or red leaves with slightly crunchy stems

Pea Shoots: Crisp tendrils harvested from growing peas; available only briefly; bright pea flavor

Purslane: Succulent, nutritious leaves with lemony flavor

Radicchio: Crunchy, dark red and white leaves with bitter bite; ‘Treviso’ has sweet undertones

Radish Tops: Tiny greens with radish flavor; best eaten young

Red Orach: Pointed deep red/purple leaves with spinach flavor

Romaine: Crunchy, ruffled green leaves; slightly bitter

Sorrel: Juicy, tender leaves with a bold, slightly sour lemon flavor

Spinach: Tender leaves with an earthy, buttery-to-bitter flavor

Tatsoi/Bok Choy: Juicy leaves with crisp stems; peppery

Turnip Tops: Tender greens with turnip flavor; best when young

Watercress: Juicy, long stems; dark green with peppery bite

Choose Your Own Greens Adventure 

Greens by Texture 

Tender: arugula, beet tops, butterhead, claytonia, dandelion, kale (without stems), green/red leaf lettuce, lollo rosso, mâche, mizuna, mustard, nasturtium, oakleaf, radish tops, red orach, sorrel, spinach, turnip tops

Crisp/Crunchy: bladder campion, cabbage, endive, escarole, frisée, iceberg, kale, Napa cabbage, pea shoots, purslane, radicchio, romaine, tatsoi, watercress

Greens by Flavor 

Mild/Nutty/Sweet: bladder campion, butterhead, beet tops, cabbage, claytonia, endive (paler), escarole, green/red leaf lettuce, iceberg, kale, lollo rosso, mâche, Napa cabbage, oakleaf, pea shoots, purslane, red orach

Bitter/Peppery/Sour: arugula, dandelion, endive (darker), frisée, mizuna, mustard, nasturtium, radicchio, radish tops, romaine, sorrel, spinach, tatsoi, turnip tops, watercress

Greens by Color 

Partly White to LIght Green: butterhead, cabbage, endive, escarole, frisée, iceberg, Napa cabbage, romaine, tatsoi

Bright or dark green: arugula, bladder campion, claytonia, dandelion, green leaf, kale, mâche, mizuna, mustard, nasturtium, oakleaf, pea shoots, purslane, radish tops, sorrel, spinach, turnip tops, watercress

Red/Purple: beet tops, cabbage, kale, lollo rosso, oakleaf, radicchio, red orach, red leaf

Nutrient Salad 

Eating a wide variety of salad greens—among the most concentrated sources of food nutrition—will pump you full of antioxidants, minerals (calcium, iron, magnesium, manganese, phosphorus and potassium), vitamins (A, C, E, K and many of the Bs), phytonutrients (beta-carotene, lutein and zeaxanthin), plus fiber, folate, omega-3 fatty acids and many trace nutrients.

Dress up your salads with delicious homemade dressings! See the article, "Dressed to Impress: Homemade Salad Dressings."

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