Anita Morton - Growing Gardens

A bitter bite

As the weather heats up many of us will all be enjoying more salads. For many years, the staple lettuce-tomato-cucumber was the only salad we made, but fortunately our eyes have been opened and a huge range of salad vegies are now available as seeds and seedlings. Nothing enlivens a salad like a few leaves with bitter or mustardy flavours among the bland lettuce.

The bitter salads generally come from the chicory family, which is closely related to lettuces. Despite wide differences of form and end use, endive, chicory, radicchio and witlof are all members of genus Chicorium. The degree of bitterness varies depending on the variety, growing conditions and age of the plant.

In general, it is best to grow these plants in moist, humus-rich soil with plenty of nutrients, especially nitrogen. These are the same conditions that lettuce enjoys, not surprisingly. Most of the chicories are better suited to winter growing, but try them in a shaded position now so you can pep up those summer salads.

A plant which used to be a common salad vegetable, but is now regarded simply as a pesky weed, is the dandelion. Its important to differentiate here between flatweed (often mistaken for the real thing) and dandelions. Flatweeds have slightly hairy, dark green leaves that lie flat on the ground. Dandelions have smooth, brighter green leaves that stand up. Dont try snacking on a flatweed!

Both chicories and dandelions benefit greatly from being blanched before picking. This means covering the plant with a light-proof container a dark coloured bucket will do to exclude light and produce pale leaves. It only takes a couple of weeks to produce the blanched leaves. These leaves are much milder in flavour than green ones, and also give an interesting colour contrast in a salad.

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