On a bright, not too cold Colorado day, you can almost hear the lettuce growing—the tiny sword-shaped leaves standing at attention. But it’s only the imagination at work. Winter is locked in and the leaves of foxglove and sweet William lie hunched, hugging the earth.
GREENS A DEPENDABLE LONG SEASON CROP
Flowers are an important cash crop, as are heirloom vegetables. But ask most gardeners just what grows most successfully for the longest season in a garden, and there’s only one answer: greens.
ANCIENT BUT NOT FOUND IN THE WILD
Lettuces and chicories are two of the last crops to surrender to freezes and one of the first to sprout in a cold, damp spring. That makes them ideal for growing in cold greenhouse conditions, or outside in the garden after March 15. Only spinach has the jump on them. Like spinach, they’ll bolt in hot weather and turn tough and leathery. But the long, cool spring and fall temperatures in Colorado ensure a bountiful harvest for months.
Chicories and lettuces fall into the sunflower family, a vast group that includes artichokes, tarragon and dandelions. Oddly, though, you won’t find lettuces in the wild, even though many are heirloom plants hundreds of years old. Botanists suspect that lettuces originated from kale-like plants that grew along the seacoasts of many continents. They eventually cross-pollinated in the small plots of household gardens.
Romaine lettuce dates back to Roman times and may have come from Turkey. The crisp leaves have changed little since ancient cuisine. Perhaps that explains its somewhat drought-tolerant characteristics, setting it apart. Most lettuces and chicories prefer moist soil that is richly composted. Although it takes longer for romaine to grow to maturity, it will remain robust even if the soil dries out a bit.
GROWING LETTUCES AND CHICORIES
The major difference between chicories and lettuces is the degree of bitterness. Chicories add a bite to a salad, like radicchio, frisée, endive and escarole. Lettuces are mild. Beyond that, their planting and growing characteristics are the same. The seeds need some light to germinate, so gardeners simply ruffle the soil around the seed rows so that light can penetrate. Many lettuces and chicories will grow in very light shade, which provides them shelter from a hot summer sun, but they will need at least six hours of bright sun each day.
Lettuces are divided into a loose leaf, the black seeded Simpson and butterhead lettuce, like Bib. Loose-leaf heads can be harvested one leaf at a time to extend the duration of harvest. Head lettuces like iceberg or crisphead are harvested at once. There are hundreds of lettuces to choose from when you plant a garden. The reason why only a few are available in stores has to do with storage. Few lettuces will keep well, so salad aficionados collect greens the day they are to be served.
That’s what has made mesclun mixes so popular lately. Mesclun mixes are a selection of loose leaf lettuces like oak leaf and Simpson that can be harvested when young. Some mixes also contain arugula, beet, mizuna or dandelion seeds to accompany the mild lettuces. Traditionally, mesclun mixtures in France are the young new spring leaves of any greens that appear: chervil, arugula, curly endive and lettuces. These are the first greens to poke through the soil after a long winter. The Italians call their harvest misticanza, which contain mostly chicory leaves.
Winter Lettuces with Pears and Pomegranate Seeds
- One handful of washed lettuces, buttercrunch is a favorite here
- One handful of watercress leaves
- One slice of jicama, peeled and slivered
- One stalk of celery, with strings removed and sliced thinly
- One pear, peeled and sliced in half
- One handful of pomegranate seeds
- ½ cup of roasted walnuts with honey (instructions below)
- Several slivers of Parmesan cheese
Wash and dry all greens. Roast the walnuts with about 3 tablespoons of honey drizzled over in a 350-degree oven for 8 minutes or until just toasted.
Assemble the lettuce leaves first, then strew about the watercress. Add all other ingredients. Fill the pear cores with pomegranate seeds. Serve with dressing below.
Dressing: 3 tablespoons olive oil, 1 tablespoon rice wine vinegar, tangerine or fresh lemon juice, salt and pepper to taste. Drizzle on the salad just before serving.
Winter Chicories with Figs and Blue Cheese
- One handful of frisée chicory
- Several leaves of radicchio leaves
- One handful of watercress
- One stalk of celery, strings removed and sliced thinly
- ½ cup of roasted walnuts or pistachios with honey (see directions above)
- 5 small figs sliced in half
- One slice of jicama, peeled and slivered
- Several wedges of blue cheese, crumbled
Dressing: (same as above)
Belgian Endive Leaves Stuffed
Belgian Endive leaves are perfect to stash small, individual portions. Stuff them with a Waldorf salad of chopped apples, walnuts, celery–bound together with a little mayonnaise or sour cream and a squirt of lemon.
Or, try Stilton or blue cheese with walnuts in the centers. For an appetizer, place a slice of avocado with a piece of cooked, chilled lobster or crab and a squirt of lemon or tangerine juice.