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Salad : The Greens Goddess

August 25, 1994|LAURIE OCHOA | TIMES FOOD EDITOR

The ultimate salad tool of the '60s was the wooden salad bowl, put to best use by the Playboy-affected bachelor in his singles apartment with the killer view of sailboats, ready to conquer yet another bowl of romaine for the benefit of a female audience of one. And with each successive match of man and garlic came the inevitable problem--a lingering unpleasantness in the air, the funk of salads past. The bowl had turned rancid.

In 1994, the essential tool might be the unromantic-sounding salad-in-a-bag. With bag well hidden, the home cook projects the image of a dedicated gardener, one with the knowledge and time to grow, oh, five or six varieties of baby greens. And yet, salad-in-a-bag is pure convenience food with its own set of potential problems--namely, slimy leaves.

Somewhere between the bowl and the bag, many of us learned to make a decent salad. Spurred by the revived interest in the books of Elizabeth David and M.F.K. Fisher, who spent pages describing the delights of a simple green salad; by the obsession with freshness articulated by Chez Panisse's Alice Waters; by costly oils and vinegars promoted by merchants eager to find the purest products in the most obscure corners of Europe, many cooks came to realize that a great green salad should be exactly the sum of its parts.

The basic formula: Even the freshest greens are ruined by cheap oil, yet the priciest oils and vinegars cannot make up for wilted leaves.

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Not least among the leaders of the greens revolution is Kenter Canyon Farms lettuce grower Andrea Crawford, the woman conceivably responsible for the current salad-in-a-bag phenomenon. Not only are bagged lettuces now available everywhere from discount warehouses to upscale grocery boutiques, the mix of greens has gotten more sophisticated, from mostly iceberg and carrot shreds to an increasingly diverse assortment of European-wanna-be mixtures of baby greens: mesclun.

When Crawford planted her first bed of lettuce, plastic-wrapped greens were the last thing she had on her mind. Even today, though she sells her greens in boxes (not bags) at one local supermarket, she's not exactly a fan of the packaged stuff--in her view, loose is best.

All she really wanted when she first got into the salad business was to find a way to make a little money and still have enough time to raise kids.

"It was 1981," says Crawford, sitting under a tree on the 16 acres of farmland in Agoura Hills where most of her lettuce is grown. "I'd been working at Chez Panisse with Alice Waters since about 1976--in those days the restaurant was much smaller, and everyone did everything. I made salad dressings and soups, I waited tables, I helped in the wine room and just sort of became part of the family. At the same time, I had a garden with some girlfriends of mine in North Berkeley, and it was one of those years when the weather was right, the garden was abundant and I had this new baby. I was so happy. It was the same summer that Alice was really getting famous--her first book had come out and she was busy entertaining everyone, racing into our garden at the last minute for lettuce or whatever to serve so and so from such and such.

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"One day, I was sitting in the garden, bouncing Nathan on my knee, and Alice came by and said: 'I hope you don't mind that I've been taking so much lettuce lately, but I really need some more. Is it OK?' I told her, 'There's way too much anyway--take whatever you need.' "

Then Waters said something that changed Crawford's life.

"You know," she told Crawford, "if you have too much, you can bring it to the restaurant and we could buy it."

"It hit me then that this is what I could do to make money," Crawford says. "I could have too much every day."

At first, Crawford thought she might try to supply Waters with all sorts of vegetables, not just lettuce. But Berkeley is not a place of open spaces.

"I didn't have a lot of land--we started off in Alice's back yard--and lettuce was the one thing I could grow a lot of there," Crawford says. "I developed a growing technique that was pretty different from anything you'd read in a textbook. I knew I was going to pick the lettuce young, that I'd keep the soil really rich, that the crops would turn over quickly and that the roots weren't going to go very deep. I thought, well, we can really cram this lettuce in. Of course, when I ran this past other farmers they said, 'No, you can't do that; it will never work.' They thought you needed to have space between the plants, which is sort of a traditional approach to farming. I just ignored them. I mean, I'd had the experience of crowding lettuce in and eating the thinnings. It worked beautifully."

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The California baby lettuce movement had begun.

Eventually Crawford acquired a whole half acre, and was able to supply Waters with lettuce for not only the formal downstairs restaurant, but also for the upstairs cafe and Waters' nearby Cafe Fanny.

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