Dining with Dara: Lettuce out of the crisper, into patio pots

Lettuce greens for sale in four-packs at Mother Earth Gardens in Minneapolis, Wednesday, May 9, 2012.
MPR Photo/Jennifer Simonson

Spring is officially here. The farmer's markets are open and full of bedding plants, flowers, and vegetables.

Speaking of vegetables, every year it seems like the interest in growing your own vegetables increases. Our regular food correspondent, Dara Moskowitz Grumdahl, senior editor of Minneapolis St. Paul Magazine, is here to tell us about an easy way to go about it.

Tom Crann: I see you're holding a cookbook — and I know you've got lettuce on your mind.

DMG: Yes, I do. The cookbook I'm holding is by chef Brenda Langton. She's one of the founders of Minnesota food as we know it, in all its local and fresh glory. It's called "The Spoonriver Cookbook," named after her current restaurant, Spoonriver, right near the Guthrie. She also founded the Mill City Farmer's Market, which operates right there and actually opens for the season this very weekend.

Tom Crann: But before Brenda Langton had Spoonriver, she had Cafe Brenda, is that right?

DMG: That's right, and the vegetarian Cafe Kardamena before that. That was more than 20 years ago, and she has been thinking about healthy eating, real eating, sustainable eating ever since. Today, she's actually a senior fellow at the University of Minnesota's Center for Spirituality and Healing.

Tom Crann: I think that would surprise a lot of people. Chefs are usually the people you think of who are trying to get you to eat unhealthy things — chocolate mousse and pork belly.

DMG: Don't say pork belly around Brenda. It drives her crazy. But she's in no way in that punitive camp of Purr Steamed Broccoli and Chicken Breasts. That's one of the things I admire about her most, it's hard to make a moderate, thoughtful path in food. It's much easier to make a splash by being extreme in one way or another.

Tom Crann: That's what grabs headlines.

DMG: Yes, if you remember a few weeks ago there was a New York Times story which made big headlines, about a gathering of medical doctors at Harvard who were learning to cook more healthfully to try to make food and nutrition part of the way to heal diabetes, obesity, cardiovascular health, and so on. Chef Brenda Langton was there, and she actually reported back to me that she thought it was pretty silly. They had demonstrations about how to cook exotic things like stone crab bouillabaisse with saffron — and that's just ridiculously difficult for everyday life. The sourcing alone is difficult and expensive, never mind the actual cooking. If the choice is stone crab bouillabaisse or the drive-through, we've lost the war. Most people can't even figure out how to get their basic five to nine servings of vegetables a day.

Tom Crann: It does often seem like simply eating a salad is incompatible with modern life.

DMG: Perhaps it would be easier if you could grow the salad?

Tom Crann: That doesn't sound easier.

DMG: But it could be, because once you have the lettuce growing right in front of you, you don't have to go to the store to get it, or worry about whether it's going bad in the crisper drawer. I was talking to Brenda this week about her book, which I really love because it's simple ways to eat vegetables, grains, and legumes, and we got to talking about that European tradition of lettuce pots.

Tom Crann: Lettuce pots?

DMG: Yes, just lettuce, the kind with the roots that you get in the garden center, not the kind that's already cut in the grocery store, tucked into a pot and set in a sunny place — on a patio, on a picnic table, wherever you have a bit of room that's sunny. You don't have to tear up your lawn, or worry about what's in your soil.

A lot of garden centers actually sell the whole pot, or window box, or whatever it is, already planted. Or you can plant your own. There are so many varieties today: butterleaf, romaine, deep red varieties. You can interplant spinach with them if you want. And when your lettuce gets growing you can snip a lot for a salad, or just a few leaves for a little add-in to whatever you're making.

If you've got a little lettuce growing in plain sight you can do so many things with it: tuck a few leaves into your sandwich, scissor some to add to a quesadilla or black bean soup, add a bit to a stir fry. A cup of lettuce, which is about a fist-sized portion, really isn't that much.

Tom Crann: What if you get so enthusiastic that you eat your whole lettuce pot?

DMG: You can sprinkle in lettuce seeds when you start that can grow up to replace what you're eating, or just go back to the garden store. And if it gets to late July and you never ate a salad, well, you can rip it out and replace your lettuce with geraniums and you won't be out too much more than the cost of a couple of heads of lettuce from the grocery store.

Tom Crann: And if it's up on a picnic table I suppose it can't be called rabbit food.

DMG: Those rabbits might be on to something, they're pretty energetic. And I never see them at the gym trying to drop a few pounds for swimsuit season.

Mill City Farmer's Market
The Spoonriver Cookbook

Recipes, excerpted from The Spoonriver Cookbook

Chef Chris Bundy's Basil Honey Dressing from The Spoonriver Cookbook

"This incredibly bright dressing, not your typical vinaigrette, is a wonderful summer treat. Garnish your salad with strawberries and toasted nuts. Feel free to substitute rice vinegar or champagne vinegar if you do not have white balsamic vinegar on hand.

1 cup packed basil leaves¼ cup coarsely chopped onion
1 tablespoon dry mustard
3 tablespoons honey
1 cup white balsamic vinegar or lemon juice
1 cup olive oil

Place all of the ingredients in a blender and blend until smooth.

Makes about 3 cups.

White Balsamic Vinaigrette

White balsamic vinegar is lower in acid than most other vinegars, which allows you to use less oil in a dressing. We have found beautiful white balsamic vinegars, even one that tastes like fresh strawberries! We really like how fresh and light this dressing is.

¾ cup white balsamic vinegar
1 heaping tablespoon chopped fresh tarragon
½ tablespoon Dijon mustard
1 medium clove garlic, minced
½ tablespoon honey
¼ teaspoon pepper
1 teaspoon salt
Zest and juice of half a lemon (optional)
1 cup olive oil

Mix together the vinegar, tarragon, mustard, garlic, honey, pepper, salt, and lemon zest and juice (if using). Add the oil in a steady stream while whisking.

Makes 2 cups.

Salads and Homemade Dressing

Buy whole heads of Bibb, leaf, and romaine lettuce and wash them. This will usually save you money, and you will end up with a much fresher salad than with the prewashed bagged salad mixes (which you really should wash anyway). Some of our favorite simple additions to greens include:

Grated carrots (no need to peel them)
Thinly sliced red cabbage
Thinly sliced fennel crisped in cold water for a while
Red or sweet white onions
Green onions
Thinly sliced cucumbers
Alfalfa, clover, broccoli, or other sprouts
Orange or grapefruit pieces
Apples or pears
Nuts, such as walnuts, pistachios, toasted almonds, and pumpkin seeds
Chickpeas (canned are fine)
Goat cheese, feta, or bleu cheese

A simple vinegar and oil dressing uses about 1 part vinegar to 3 parts oil. We sometimes like to use fresh citrus, apple, or any number of juices instead of all vinegar. Replacing some of the vinegar with juice allows for a lighter dressing because you can add less oil. Try adding mirin, honey, or a splash of maple syrup for a touch of sweetness. Mustard adds a spark of spiciness, but dissolve it in the other ingredients before adding the oil.

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