JOANNA'S FOOD: family cooking, from scratch, every day

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Salad easy

Don't you just hate those ruinous supermarket pillows of salad that taste faintly of swimming pool? At the risk of turning this blog into an edition of Gardener's World, I'm going to tell you how to free yourself of them forever, a really easy way. I've got a garden and a greenhouse, but I'm pretty sure you could do this on a sunny windowsill, too. We've been picking and eating salad through the winter - and the only actual gardening I did (apart from the occasional sprinkle with water) was to sow the seeds in the autumn. Now that it's warming up and the days are getting longer, we can barely eat up with the growth.

The secret is to grow plants which are "cut and come again" - in other words, salad leaves rather than entire lettuces. So you go out with your colander, and choose the exact leaves you want, rather than pulling up a huge lettuce with lots of nasty outer leaves you're going to have to chuck. And you pick them regularly - daily at this time of year, weekly in the dark of winter - so you only ever have luscious young leaves, the sort celebrity chefs know how to charge for.

The varieties you are looking for are rocket, mizuna (lovely peppery taste), mustards, cresses. They're often sold in mixes called things like Saladisi, and theyre a good way to start, because you are growing your very own bowl of mixed salad, and because you get to know which ones you like best, and because it's cheaper. Some mixes are recommended for winter, some for summer, but most of them will grow year round.

You need to sow them at intervals during the year: out of doors, now (by which I mean any time in the next six weeks), and again a couple of months later. Indoors, for a winter crop, you really need to get the seed in the ground in September, and the earlier you do it, the stronger your winter crop will be. The indoor crop could be in a grow-bag in a greenhouse, or perhaps in a wine box on a balcony (perhaps covered, cloche-style, with fleece, or plastic, or perspex), or in a large pot on a windowsill. Whatever, just water and pick, water and pick. And eat, of course.

I sprinkle them in rows (so I can tell them apart from the weeds), and I don't bother to cover them, although I may just stroke the soil lightly. Keep them watered (you really do need to use a fine sprinkler head, but you don't actually need a watering can for this, you can use a special head on an old plastic bottle).

Yesterday, I sowed the first outdoor seed, in an old zinc bath outside the kitchen door (I often find myself picking in the dark), covered over with an old door scraper to keep off the pigeons. I expect we'll be able to start picking these in mid to late April, depending on the weather, by which time the plants in my greenhouse will be exhausted and fading.

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