Salad greens are among the oldest cultivated plants in the world. In fact, the scientific suffix for a number of common salad green varieties is ‘sativa’, derived from the Latin satum, the supine of the verb sero, meaning ‘to sow’, indicating that the seeds of the plant were sown in gardens. Luckily one need not have an intimate understanding of a long-dead language in order to prepare salad greens, which can be used in countless simple yet effective ways.
The term ‘salad greens’ has no true scientific basis, other than being green and being used in salads, and encompasses a wide range of leaves. Mesclun is the French term given to a mixture of tender young gourmet salad greens. Mesclun contains combinations of salad leaves and herbs that will vary with the time of year and from brand to brand. Young spinach leaves are often used in salad mixes and sold with other salad greens. Baby spinach has round to oblong leaves with a mild flavour. Spinach is particularly nutrient dense with a wide range of health benefits. Rocket has dark green, deeply lobed leaves and has a spicy piquant flavour. It is ideal to mix with other lettuce leaves and is commonly found in commercially available lettuce leaf mixes. Wild rocket has thinner leaves and a more intense spicy piquant flavour than rocket. Like rocket, mizuna has a spicy piquant flavour, is great mixed with other lettuce leaves and is commonly found in commercially available lettuce leaf mixes. Mizuna is medium green with deeply jagged leaves. Mibuna is similar in taste to mizuna but it has a slightly stronger flavour. The leaves are smooth edged.
When choosing salad greens, clean and crisp is the way to go. Fortunately salad greens are available all year round, so availability isn’t a problem. When it comes to storage, salad greens should be refrigerated in plastic bags or in the crisper. Make sure that the leaves aren't squashed or wilted, and use promptly after purchase.
When preparing, remove any coarse or wilted leaves. If necessary, leaves can be soaked for a few minutes in warm water before refrigerating for 20 minutes to freshen up the leaves.
Salad greens are among the most versatile of vegetables and can be used raw in salads, sandwiches or as a garnish. Experimentation is encourage, as several of the varieties taste good when lightly blanched and served in a warm salad.
Salad greens have a similar nutritional content to lettuce, however, varieties such as rocket are richer in vitamin A (from beta-carotene). Some are also a source or good sources of vitamin A, selected B vitamins and some minerals. They are also low in energy (kilojoules). Salad greens provide a range of phytonutrients depending on the mix of leaves but include carotenoids (rocket, baby spinach), anthocyanins (red coloured leaves) and glucosinolates (leaves from the brassica family such as tat soi, chard, mustard and rocket).
Jeremy Schmid, chef and owner at The Officers’ Mess at Fort Takapuna, uses rocket lettuce in his smoked beetroot salad.