Tuesday, June 2, 2009


Our herbs are standing at bright attention this morning, in the moist air and the very damp ground. I meant to put three of the basil plants in the huge old green plastic pot right at the always-sunny corner of the backdoor sidewalk, but we decided on letting them all go into the herb-garden-in-progress. The matching old green pot yielded a lovely crop of tender small lettuces last year, several colors and temperaments, and now that Spring has done her magic, there are quite a few nicely-growing varieties, come up “volunteer” from the seeds of their forebears.

Spring lettuce and wee mustard ears just starting their growth and small green onions, still akin to chives---those are worth picking early, before their growth is fully on them. They comprise one of the glories of the Southern cooking lexicon: Wilted Lettuce Salad.

It’s a last-minute dish, with the cool little greennesses washed and spun and snugged into a bag with damp paper towels, or it cooperates quite well with a quick trip to the garden to pick the best leaves, then a sluice of cold water and a dry-patting with paper towels, and not even a trip into the house. Set the patio or arbor table, put out all the food, pour the iced tea, THEN bring out the dressing and dress the salad at the last possible second. Toss and serve the tangy, more-than-salad mouthfuls with thick wedges of cornbread or thin, crisp ones---the marriage of limpening vegetables, in the best possible window between freshly-picked and gently cooked, is an unctuously seductive combination, and the last juices of the bowl are greedily claimed for dunking just one more bite of bread. . .

Use any lettuce but iceberg to make this salad. Redleaf and frilly Simpson are good. Any combination of looseleaf lettuce or arugula or spinach meld beautifully. And best of all, if you can get away with it: the tiniest, just-unfurled leaves of curly mustard, with the bittery-ness not QUITE developed, just enough to punctuate all the mild shyness of the little lettuces.

My venerable salad spinner is a battered old Tupperware-ish thing, bright orange dinged here and there by errant knifeblades or droppage onto this slate floor. It is missing one picket of its little cog-fence inside, and so does not spin perfectly unless clasped tightly to your bosom just SO as you madly whirl the top knob. As the spin slows, it drawls to a slow close with increasing clackety sounds, like an old tractor ending a hard day in the field.

You can start the bacon frying while you go pick the lettuce, if you wish. Get it crisp, remove to drain, then crumble, but leave all those drippings in the skillet. Make sure the drippings are still hot; stir a teaspoon of sugar into a good glug of cider or wine vinegar, along with a scant teaspoon of salt. Then pour this gently into the hot skillet, stirring with a long spoon.

Have the torn lettuce in a big deep bowl, with the sliced onions and any other additions you choose. Pour on the hot dressing, add the bacon, toss quickly and serve---the aroma will make you swoon.

This sublime dish was the favorite of a neighbor, called "Wil-did Leddis Sallid" by her family. She sometimes threw in a chopped boiled egg or two, and the lagniappe was the saved-til-last treat: dipping that big ole tablespoon into the bowl, hearing it scrape gently across the crockery, and spooning up some of the luscious, vinegar-y, bacon-y bowl-drippin's onto your cornbread.

A wonderful restaurant here used to make the dressing, bringing it out hot and fragrant in its own little pitcher, for pouring onto your spinach salad, which already had slices of the whitest lengthwise mushrooms, rings of red onion, and a little dish of crumbled bacon for sprinkling,. Each addition led the next, with the whole warm dressing/cool salad mixed at the last second and eaten while the flavors and temperatures were still at their best. That’s the closest restaurant version to the centuries-old Southern treat.

I'm thinking a table set out under our new carved-out arbor space, candles flickering in time with the fireflies, and wide soupbowls of this salad set before each guest, a gentle-fried egg atop, with a quick grind of pepper, and some thin cornbread wedges snuggled alongside for sopping up the last delicious juices.

I can't BEGIN to think what course could follow that. Maybe just a whole punchbowl full of Strawberry Shortcake---for four.


sparrowgrass said...

Mmmm, I do love me some wilted lettuce salad, and have even, in a pinch, done it with iceberg. Not the same, but a definite improvement over plain old ranch or vinagrette.

I learned how to make this from my mom--we slice some onion into the hot dressing and cook it for just a minute. And lots of celery goes in with the lettuce. The cooked bacon stays in the dressing, so it is not crisp, but chewy. I will have to try it with an egg on top--sounds yummy.

My lettuce is ready to thin--I plant a wide row, sowing the seeds heavily. The thinnings go into the salad bowl, and by the time I get the row thinned to the proper spacing, the season is about done.

I have discovered that this dish can be done ahead, sort of. Make the dressing, and refrigerate it, along with the clean and dry lettuce leaves. When you are ready to eat, just reheat the dressing and put the salad together.

When I have company, I want everything possible done ahead, so I can enjoy chat, not be rushing around trying to cook everything. ('Sides that, it makes the whole process look so effortless and impressive.)

sparrowgrass said...

Oooh--how do you make your shortcake? I make a buttery pie crust, sprinkled with demarara sugar (roll over the sugar with the rolling pin, just enough to make it stick). I cut the crust into stars and moons, and bake til just barely browned.

A layer of berries, the pretty stars and moons on top, and a good plop of whipped cream, spiked with a little vanilla sugar. Crunchy, creamy, sweet and tart--can't be beat.

racheld said...

Oh, YUMMM!!!

I did "shortcake" for an old friend's dinner party today---just made five, as there were four at table. She's always liked what she calls a "rich biscuit" as the cake part, so I did "short" biscuits---lots of butter---with a little sugar and hint of vanilla. Egg-and-cream wash on top, scatter of Turbinado to make them shine.

She likes to warm the macerated, smushed berries just a tiny bit, then set the biscuit on a pool of them, and fill the split with the sauce. I admit, the warmish biscuit and berries and that cold whipped cream are a winning combo.

My own favorite, bless my redneck heart, is to split a store-bought angelfood cake, load up the bottom layer with crushed, sugared berries, then put on the top---more sauce, and pile dollops of whipped cream all over the top.

Letting it sit in the fridge for the time it takes to eat dinner only adds to the charm---the cool smoothness of the whole thing, when the cake becomes almost like a thick pudding.

That's what I'd serve in the punchbowl. And have.