The other reason that this seems like a timely topic is that I have heard several people recently saying they wanted to include more salad in their diets, but that the lettuces seem to go bad before they can be consumed. One solution to this of course is to purchase fresh local greens—the closer one is to the harvest, the longer something is likely to last. But even store bought greens can be made to last longer if they are handled properly once you get them home.
To make sure that your greens will last as long as possible, the first thing you should do is pick through them and get rid of anything that is already beginning to decay. If you buy greens at the farmers' market, this shouldn't be an issue. Always try and purchase greens and lettuces that look fresh and crisp. If you are purchasing boxed or bagged lettuces at the grocery store, don't just look at the date. Look at the lettuce itself. Containers that have lots of humidity/water in them are a sign that the lettuce has begun to break down. Avoid bruised/crushed lettuces and greens that are beginning to turn yellow. Lettuces that are not crushed, slimy or yellowed, but look a bit limp can be refreshed by soaking them in water (Shirley Corriher recommends a 30 minute soak)—they just need a drink.
Whether or not your lettuces need refreshing, they should be washed. Fill a large bowl, or the kitchen sink, with cool water. Add the lettuces and swish them around. Let them sit for a minute so any dirt or grit that has been dislodged can settle to the bottom. Lift the lettuces out of the water. If they are very dirty or sandy, you may need to rinse them in several changes of fresh water. Continue to wash them until the water is clear.
When the lettuces are clean, spin them dry. A salad spinner is a great investment—it is not expensive and will make a huge difference in your salads. Salad greens that are stored wet will decay more quickly. Also, lettuces that still have water clinging to them will dilute any vinaigrette or dressing that is applied to them. If you don't have a salad spinner, let the lettuces drain in a colander and then spread them on towels. Then, gently blot them dry.
The washed lettuces should be stored in an airtight container in the refrigerator. Zip lock plastic bags and Tupperware-type containers work well. Zip lock bags are good because excess air can be pressed out. If you choose a Tupperware-type container it should be just large enough to hold the greens snugly. Exposure to oxygen will encourage decay, so you want as little air as possible in the container. I also like to line the bag or container with paper towels. This accomplishes two things: The paper towels will absorb any water left on the lettuces which would cause the greens to mold/decompose more quickly. At the same time the paper towels, having absorbed the water, will keep the environment in the container itself humid, which will help to keep the greens crisp.
Here is how I stored the lettuces that I purchased and washed on Saturday:
And here is what they look like today (Wednesday):
Even the freshest greens, properly cared for, will not last that long—a week, maybe a little more, at best. I suspect that one of the reasons that people find rotting greens in their refrigerator is that they purchased salad greens with the noble intention if eating healthily and then got tired of eating salad. I understand this, because salads were never something that I wanted to eat very badly. I associated them with diets and deprivation. Also, the salads that I was exposed to as a child were filled with lots of crunchy, and to my taste, flavorless ingredients—raw carrots, cucumbers, hot house tomatoes, radishes, green onions.... Not that there is anything wrong with most of these ingredients if they are fresh. The problem with these ingredients is that all together they make for a salad that is uniform in texture and flavor. These ingredients are crunchy and overwhelmingly watery. If you are a person that craves raw vegetables (or you're a rabbit) then you might enjoy a salad like this. But a person who loves raw vegetables probably wouldn't have a problem eating a 5 oz. box of lettuce before it went bad.
I began to enjoy salads when I realized that salad greens can be used as a vehicle for all kinds of wonderful ingredients. They can be a bed for a grilled steak, a sautéed piece of fish or some roast chicken. They can include roasted or blanched vegetables, dried fruits, interesting cheeses, freshly fried croutons, toasted nuts, raw fruit, hard cooked or poached eggs, crispy bacon...even raw vegetables. The key is to use quality, fresh ingredients and combine them as you would for anything—thoughtfully, with an eye towards varying textures and flavors.
We are so fortunate today that in almost every grocery store there is an amazing variety of salad greens—mixed baby lettuces, arugula, baby spinach, mâche, chicories, romaine hearts, heads of butter and leaf lettuces. You will find an equally amazing array at your farmers' market. With all of this variety and a little creativity, you can create truly wonderful and satisfying salads.
If I had not promised a short post today, I would go on about how to combine ingredients, how to dress a salad, how to make a great vinaigrette....all fodder for upcoming posts, of which I'm sure there will be many, since this is after all salad season.