Nigel Slater: Turn over new leaves

The slugs had friends round again last night. After nibbling on a radish or two (white icicle) they appear to have enjoyed a light supper of cream lupins, red chicory and some mauve-flowered borlotti beans. For dessert, they shared one of my treasured black hollyhocks. Maddeningly, they ignored the bolted green chicory 'fine de Louvier', which has turned piercingly bitter, and the over-the-hill salad mizuna.

They are squatting there now, watching me write out next year's seed order for the salad bed, no doubt licking their lips at the thought of the spicy mustard suehlihung and the rosettes of mild Verte de Cambrai lamb's lettuce I am determined to grow.

As much as I appreciate a single-leaf green salad, perhaps the sleepy butterhead or juicy little gem - quietly perfect with cold chicken and lemon mayonnaise - there is something fascinating about the wackier salad leaves. These are the sort that turn up on restaurant plates the world over, and in a milder form in those wicker baskets in Italian and French market stalls.

If the slugs would lay off my leaves I might not have to buy any salad at all, but they won't and I do. I buy mine instead from the farmer's market, a plastic bag for £1.50 (I would willingly pay more). They last, in perfect condition, for several days in the fridge, especially if I remember not to dump anything on top of them.

Richard Bartlett has grown unusual salad leaves for more than 10 years - he was the first head gardener at Raymond Blanc's Le Manoir aux Quat' Saisons. He invariably sells them at his Sunday morning stall in the farmer's market in Islington, north London, but much of his business is running Halcyon Seeds, his mail-order (01865 890180) and internet seed company (www.halcyonseeds.co.uk), selling everything from amaranth to Zefa Fino fennel. His funny and helpful seasonal newsletters are sent out to those who join his seed club. I already have next year's order in for Chinese mustard greens and red orach, which Richard says 'pretties up a salad'.

Richard's salad is one step on from the French mesclun that turns up at every provincial street market. Mesclun is a rough and tumble of frisée, oak leaf, rocket, gem and trevise. The Bartlett bag is hotter and more vibrant. Cerise-coloured red orachs, spiky rocket, tiny Tai ping po, with its sharp hit of mustard, and the gentle charm of cold-weather claytonia. These are salad greens of immense character, as far away from a supermarket iceberg as roast turbot is from a fish finger. They fill your mouth with hot, spicy flavours or spiky textures, their leaves sometimes green, sometimes flushed with beetroot red. There are leaves with a tang of lemon (sorrel), or the earthiness of beetroot, the tear-jerking capabilities of horseradish or the warm notes of white pepper. This is what you might call green salad with balls.

There should, I believe, be no hard-and-fast recipe for the daily salad. (Classic recipes such as niçoise or Waldorf are another matter.) Instead, it should have a life of its own, bending one way and the other according to what leaves, shoots and herbs are in season. This shouldn't mean a jumble of mismatched flavours, but the salad should be allowed to change a little each day to take in the tarragon, the mache or the rocket that just come onto the scene.

Taste as you go. That way you avoid the shock of a bowl made up entirely of explosive tastes - mustard greens, watercress, rocket and nasturtium - or the dreariness of a salad so mild (say, corn salad, butterhead, claytonia and parsley) that you drop off to sleep while you are eating it. The dressing is crucial, but simple. I use a simple oil-and-vinegar dressing that does not overshadow the character of the leaves.

Twice this week supper has been no more than a slice of orange-fleshed melon and some salty Parma ham, a big bowl of tossed salad leaves with hot, crisp garlic croutons followed by some cheese (the Wigmore is stunning right now) and a bowl of raspberries (Glen Ample). All I need in these last remaining days of sun and shorts.

A few leaves to look out for:

Rhubarb chard

I have been growing these beet-flavoured red-veined leaves all summer. I pick them when they are no bigger than a teaspoon. The ones that get away will be cooked like spinach in a week or so.

Lamb's lettuce

You may know it as mache or corn salad. Tender, juicy leaves with a nutty flavour held in rosettes. Richard Bartlett points out that there are several varieties, and he recommends Verte de Cambrai to last through the winter.

Mizuna

A ragged, spiky leaf not unlike rocket. Mine has gone wild and ragged because I planted too many seeds at once, but it is normally a well-behaved, faintly mustard-flavoured cut-and-come-again leaf.

Chinese mustard red giant

Richard Bartlett says that the red mustards appeared in China around the seventh century. He uses them up to 5cm in salads, then uses the larger ones for stir-frying (they would be good for wrapping roast duck, instead of pancakes). The beautiful blood-red leaf deepens in cold weather. A short-lived burst of heat.

Chinese mustard suehlihung

A spiky leaf similar to rocket but prettier, hotter and fresher-tasting. By my reckoning it has something of the taste of watercress stems about it. I had never heard of this until I started buying my salad from the farmer's market. Richard grows it pretty much all year, and it has become a favourite of mine.

Tai ping po

Apart from the great name - just try asking for that at your local greengrocer's - this is a mouth-popping leaf, as hot as a dab of best Dijon. Light-green serrated leaves, milder in summer, hotter in winter.

Red orach

A beautiful leaf, browny plum on top, brilliant carmine underneath. This is on my shopping list for next year's (new, improved) salad bed. The leaves, mild and gently flavoured like butterhead lettuce, hang from 1m-tall stems.

Pak choi

If you get to this well-known Chinese green when the leaves are still tiny, they are tender and crunchy enough to eat raw.

Marinated feta with melon and mustard greens

Cool, ripe melon, hot mustardy greens and salty feta cheese. A salad for high summer. Serves 2 as a main course, 3 as a salad course.

For the marinated feta:

1 tbsp lemon juice
3 tbsp fruity olive oil
3 bushy sprigs of mint
3 sprigs of young thyme leaves (I use lemon thyme)
200g feta cheese
a large slice of charentais melon (about 250g)
6 large leaves of cos lettuce or 12 smaller little gems
2 or 3 large handfuls of salad leaves, such as any of the mustard greens

Put the lemon juice, olive oil, a little black pepper (no salt) and the tender leaves from the herb branches into a basin and whisk together with a fork. It should come together a little but you don't need it to thicken.

Crumble the feta into small chunks or cubes, letting it fall into the herb dressing. Leave it somewhere cool - the fridge if necessary, though the oil may thicken - for a good 30 minutes.

Cut the peel and seeds away from the melon flesh then cut the flesh into large chunks. I think they should be quite large, otherwise they make the salad 'wet'. Wash the salad and tear the cos into large bite-sized pieces, erring on the generous side. Nothing is worse than a bitty salad.

Serve the salad as you will, either putting the greens on plates and arranging the melon and feta on top, spooning the dressing over as you go or, in a more casual way, by gently tossing the melon, feta, salad leaves and dressing in a salad bowl and piling onto plates.

A salad of leaves, herbs pancetta and croutons

200g piece of pancetta or smoked bacon
2 thick slices of good bread, crusts removed
a little light olive oil or groundnut oil

For the salad

4 handfuls of mixed salad leaves: mustard greens, claytonia, little gem, rocket, sorrel, etc
about 20 basil leaves
a small bunch of flat-leaf parsley
6 bushy sprigs of tarragon
6 small sprigs of oregano
1 tbsp red-wine vinegar
3 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil

Cut the pancetta into dice, roughly the same size as Dolly Mixtures. Cut the bread into slightly larger dice. In a frying pan, cook the pancetta in a little oil till the fat is golden, then lift it out and drain on kitchen paper. Using both the fat in the pan and a little more oil if needed, cook the bread cubes till they are golden on all sides. Watch them carefully, because they can burn quite easily. Put them on kitchen paper to drain.

Rinse the salad carefully, so as not to damage any of the fragile leaves. Pull all the leaves from the herb branches, tear the basil roughly and chop the others.

Mix the vinegar and olive oil together with a little salt and black pepper. Assemble the salad and dress lightly with the oil and vinegar. Eat right away, while the bacon is still hot and the croutons still crisp.

Thanks to guardian.co.uk who have provided this article. View the original here.