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.