by: Marianne R. Stanton
There is an almost stunning difference between a salad you might make with off-season lettuce and tomatoes from someplace far away, and one made from local lettuces, radishes, spring onions and hothouse tomatoes that all start to become available in June.
This month we look for carrots, cucumbers, zucchini and maybe by the end of the month, sweet melons. When vegetables are this fresh, grown right down the street and brought home from their harvest just hours out of the soil, it is time to make the most of them. If not now, when? Salad anyone? All of life should be this simple.
Who’s Your Farmer?
Bartlett’s Ocean View Farm is the big dog in the island’s commercial-farm community. Most likely you have seen its bumper sticker asking, “Who’s Your Farmer?” on local cars. In business since 1843, it is now run by sixth-generation farmer John Bartlett, whose twin brothers Dan and David also work the farm. You can get almost anything at Bartlett’s, but what shoppers truly prize here are the hothouse tomatoes, grown by David, and the corn that comes in late July or August, depending on how hot and dry the weather has been.
Bartlett’s also makes good use of its greenhouses to grow hydroponic salad greens and herbs in the spring and fall, which result in beautifully-formed leaves that haven’t been battered by the elements. Greenhouse-growing also means lettuces and tender herbs can be available in the colder months of fall and spring before field conditions are suitable for growing.
Moors End Farm, on Polpis Road, has all the vegetables and herbs you could want for your salad bowl, from several varieties of leaf lettuces to juicy heirloom tomatoes and fat scallions. Sue Slosek, the matriarch who runs the farm with her husband Steve and kids Abby and Sam, likes the Cherokee Purple variety they grow, saying that’s about all they’ll eat. She won’t touch a grocery-store tomato. They’re tasteless. What’s the point?
One of them is Aidan Feeney. His Fog Town Farm, at two acres, is one of the larger plots. Feeney, who writes the gardening column for this magazine, grew up on Nantucket. After high school he spent some time in Boston before heading to Sterling College in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom, where he learned about sustainable farming practices. Before moving back to Nantucket, he managed farms in the Hudson Valley and on Long Island. Feeney has a robust business selling produce directly to many island restaurants as well as to islanders through a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) program.
When I think about the best restaurant salads I’ve ever eaten, my mind wanders across the country to California, pretty much the salad bowl for much of the nation. California’s temperate climate provides near-perfect conditions for year-round growing, and the farmers’ markets in northern California, which we visit often, are a treat for the senses.
My memory takes me back a number of years ago to a simple salad of butter lettuce, perfectly dressed and just delicious, that I had at the Buckeye Roadhouse in Marin County. It was my first experience with farm-fresh greens prepared brilliantly.
Then there was a salad of baby vegetables drizzled with excellent olive oil at Chez Panisse in Berkeley, and some baby lettuces at the Sinskey vineyards in Sonoma County. They all linger in my taste memory as salads with extraordinary flavor due to the high quality of the produce and the integrity with which the vegetables were respected.
But you don’t need to be in California to make an excellent salad. Just use recipes and techniques that highlight, not obscure, the flavors.
One of my favorite places to shop for groceries in the Bay Area is the Berkeley Bowl. It is a place where you will see vegetables you’ve likely never heard of, as well as your favorites. Whenever we visit our daughter, who lives in the area, we always make several trips there. For Christmas last year she gave me “The Berkeley Bowl Cookbook,” populated with recipes utilizing some of its more exotic fruits and vegetables. One that I especially liked featured Falafel Waffles topped with a slaw of very thinly sliced cucumbers, rainbow carrots, red onions and chopped parsley and a savory spiced yogurt sauce. The recipe calls for an Armenian cucumber, but here on the East Coast you can substitute an English cucumber, that long variety of cuke with a very thin skin and minimal seeds.
The waffles are made from chickpeas – the main ingredient in falafel – which are thrown into a blender along with eggs, milk, olive oil, herbs and spices to create a very savory batter. They are then topped with the vegetable slaw and Greek yogurt blended with harissa paste, salt and lemon juice. I also like to add some minced garlic.
One of my most memorable California culinary experiences was over a decade ago when I was interviewing Rob and Maria Sinskey for a story we were doing for Nantucket Today in conjunction with the Nantucket Wine Festival. Photographer Nicole Harnishfeger and I spent a couple of days at the Sinskey vineyards in Sonoma County, and actually stayed in a guest cottage of theirs right smack dab in the middle of the vineyards, where Maria did all of her recipe-testing for her cookbooks. At the time she was working on a cookbook with recipes she described as “honest cooking.” It was eventually published as “Family Meals,” by Williams-Sonoma.
Two recipes in that volume fit beautifully into my vision for summer salads using Nantucket ingredients. One is a salad of mixed greens tossed with fresh herbs and goat cheese. I’ve been buying beautiful bagged greens with herbs from Cheryl Emery’s Sweetwater Farm at Jesse Sandole’s fish market, 167 Raw, which also sells olive oils and vinegars. Cheryl is one the island’s small farmers who leases land from Sustainable Nantucket in the community garden right across the street and her vegetables are beautiful: lettuces, scallions, baby radishes, chive blossoms and garlic. The other salad is not so much a recipe but a composed salad of heirloom tomatoes and cherry tomatoes with fresh mozzarella, homemade pesto and good olive oil. Islandgrown tomatoes and basil are available from some of the small farmers as well as Moors End Farm and Bartlett’s. Look for varieties such as Purple Cherokee and Green Zebra for visual appeal as well as flavor.
The best tomato I ate last summer was from Feeney’s Fog Town Farm. It was small, but packed with flavor. Feeney explained that he doesn’t over-water his plants, thus concentrating the flavor in them.
When it comes to eating green salads, my favorite lettuce is Little Gem. Last year I couldn’t get enough of the baby Little Gem lettuces, scallions and carrots that Feeney grew.
I used them in a recipe from Nopalito, hands down our favorite Mexican restaurant in San Francisco, and one we try to visit every time we are out on the West Coast. The Ensalada de Lechuga con Manzana – Little Gem lettuces with Apples in a Jalapeño-Lime Vinaigrette – is one that will shake up your taste buds and get you out of your salad doldrums. Thinly-sliced radishes, chunks of ripe avocado, fried tortilla strips, pickled red onions and spiced peanuts translate into a little more work in assembly, but it is well worth it for the high-impact flavor this salad imparts.
In the realm of looking for something out of the ordinary, New York Times food writer and recipe developer Melissa Clark delivers with a new salad composed of ribbons of zucchini that have been salted, atop crescents of cantaloupe, then sprinkled with toasted almonds, shaved Parmesan and mint. Small or medium-sized zucchini and melons that are perfectly ripe are required here. This salad would also transport nicely to the beach for a refreshing lunch.
Tabbouleh is another good choice for a salad that can be packed up for a day at the beach with minimal worries about refrigeration and spoilage. Bulgur – essentially cracked wheat – is soaked in boiling water for about 40 minutes until it rehydrates and becomes fluffy before it is mixed with chopped tomatoes, cucumbers, radishes, scallions, grated carrots and herbs and tossed in a lovely jalapeño-lime vinaigrette. Add some good feta cheese if you are looking for a complete meal. This recipe comes from one of my favorite chefs, Jacques Pépin, who makes everything he does look so natural, organic and easy on his PBS show, “Jacques Pépin: Heart & Soul.”
Marianne Stanton is the founder and publisher of Nantucket Today and publisher and editor of The Inquirer and Mirror, Nantucket’s newspaper since 1821. She writes frequently about food, travel and island life.