I was drowning in salad mix at the end of the day. The coolers were packed full of totes and we needed more room, so I was stuffing bags and bags of leafy greens to free up a few tote spaces. It felt like a burden, but at the same time, I felt rich. This stuff is like gold, and not just because it earns us seven dollars a pound at our farm stands. It's one of the most vibrant, colorful, texturally interesting crops- not to mention nutrient dense and gut-healthy- we grow at the Youth Farm. It lasts for around two weeks in the fridge because it's so fresh and only a bit of every piece has been cut through in the harvest process, and it's my go-to easiest meal base- just toss in a bowl and add dressing and some sort of protein. The process from seed to bowl is relatively simple and quick:
1. Sow seeds in flats. We use several varieties of lettuce that have been bred specifically for salad mix, which makes planting, weeding, and harvesting SO much easier than densely direct-seeded head lettuce. They fall apart into uniformly small leaves with one cut, and most grow back for a second cut a week or two later. "Hampton" from Territorial Seed, a deeply lobed green leaf, is our bread-and-butter variety. "Green Butter" from Johnny's fills out the green with a flatter, rounder leaf. Our standard red this year is "Buckley" also from Territorial, and we're experimenting with a couple other varieties to fill out the mix. I was indoctrinated into the salad mix world at Gathering Together Farm, which makes a much more diverse mix with endives, orach, mustards, kales, cress, and a host of other greens depending on the time of year. I loved their style of mix, but I've also come to love the simplicity of the all-lettuce mix that we do. It's more accessible to everyone, I think, because there's guaranteed to be nothing too bitter or unusual for even the most picky pallet. That said, the sky's the limit on seed selection for salad mixes.
2. Keep them watered and not too hot to germinate, thin to one plant per cell if needed, and keep well watered for 4-6 weeks as seedlings grow.
3. Transplant into lightly fertilized beds when seedlings are well rooted in their cells. We space the plants six inches apart within five rows per bed, so they're dense enough to form a canopy once matured.
4. Cultivate weeds twice as plants become established in the beds. We do this with hoes, but many farms use a mechanical cultivator and in a garden you could scrape the soil or pull larger weeds by hand.
5. Harvest when heads are mature. We grab an entire head in one hand, cut to a reasonable leaf length with a large knife, and toss into a tote. I generally try to make the mix about 2/3 green and 1/3 red leaf, adding one variety at a time until the tote(s) are full and well proportioned. To ensure a second harvest, we brush off any leaves that fall on the growing centers of the plants and re-cut if the remaining leaves are poking up high off the ground. This makes it easier to avoid getting gross leaf nubbins in the second harvest.
6. Wash. We dump an entire tote at a time (with the right proportion of varieties) into a bathtub full of cold water. This needs to happen as soon as possible after harvest to hydro-cool the leaves and drastically slow the process of decay. We mix with our arms until the tub is pretty homogenous, all the while looking carefully for yellowed or damaged leaves and weeds.
7. Dry. We transfer handfuls of the mix into draining crates next to the tub, then spin it in an industrial electric salad spinner for a minute or two to dry off the leaves. Once the tub is empty and the mix is all dried and re-toted, it goes into the cooler until it's time for CSA or market.
8. Eat! I love the mix by itself, a bit more ripped up if I'm in the mood to mess with it, with a simple dressing. I'll throw a few leaves of spinach in, top with a couple cherry tomatoes or cucumber slices, and call it good. So refreshing, crunchy, and light for a summer lunch!