Creative beginnings for gourmet garden salads, including Autumn salads

Gourmet garden salads start with creative beginnings in the garden.

Growing a salad garden is all about looking forward to the harvest. In our imagination, all our hard work seems to come together in one big salad bowl. No matter what we plant, we can see it all freshly picked and served right out of the garden in all its glory with a nice, light dressing.

But, sometimes our imagination doesn't quite take shape when we start planting. We suddenly get limited in our thinking when it comes to salads. We know we should plant some lettuce. We know we should plant something to go on top of the lettuce, like tomatoes, and cucumbers.

From the first glimmer of the perfect garden, to the reality of the harvest, something gets lost. It could be all the hard work, or it could be there are too many choices. Perhaps we fall into the same pattern each growing season. No matter what the reason, our beautiful harvest salad bowl becomes mundane.

Is there something we could do between planting leaf lettuce for the bottom of our salad and planting tomatoes for the top? There sure is! We can get our bountiful gourmet salad back in our imagination, in our garden, and on our table by following a few simple tips to create the basis for our beautiful salad.

Choose creative greens for your salad base

Sometimes all a gourmet garden salad needs is different types of greens to make it something unique, interesting, and more flavorful. Step away from the standard lettuce varieties you've planted year after year and consider the countless varieties of lettuce available, and so much more.

You'll recognize some of these greens from a fancy dinner menu. Why not include them in your own garden and on your own table? Plant gourmet greens like arugula, endive, Bibb, Boston, radicchio, watercress, and spinach along with the better known varieties of romaine lettuce and red and green leaf lettuce. A mixture of young salad greens, sometimes called mesclun, can also be found in the garden supply shops to plant for your gourmet salad.

Think beyond lettuce and plant vegetables like kale, kohlrabi, mustard, Swiss chard, escarole, and collard greens. Don't forget red and green cabbage. There are many vegetables that can be turned into the 'bed' to create a new and interesting salad. For instance, grow broccoli and use the stems to create a salad by shredding the tender insides. Shave curls from firm fresh cucumbers to create another surprising basis for a salad bowl.

Sweet onions tossed with balsamic vinaigrette can also form the 'bed' of your salad. Add more crunch with sweet carrot shreds, or even a bit of spicy 'bite' with chopped radishes. Who says a salad has to be 'green?' But, if you want to include some green to keep the comfort level of your salad, flash-blanch some string beans and toss in with the onions. Or, try tossing your sweet onions and balsamic vinaigrette salad with snow peas or cucumber slices. Your 'greens' - the bed or basis of your salad - can really be any color, just as long as it can support the other ingredients.

As you can see, the bed or greens of a good gourmet salad can be as varied as the toppings. Look beyond a leaf of lettuce to find the surprising ingredients needed to bring your dreams of a glorious garden salad to light.

Autumn is the perfect time to grow great gourmet garden salads

There are good reasons to plant a garden in the fall, even though the plants and seeds may take a little longer to germinate in cooler weather. A fall garden provides unique opportunities to taste foods that are fresh, flavorful, and perfect as the growing season starts to come to an end.

If you missed an early spring planting, you can get a second chance to plant cool weather loving plants. But, what sort of plants will yield a gourmet salad for your table?

What to plant, what not to plant

Vegetables that like to grow in cooler weather include peas and lettuce, along with root vegetables like carrots, turnips, radishes, and beets. Just look at all the gourmet salad inspiration you have with just those few vegetables in your garden this fall! And don't forget some root vegetables actually produce very delightful salad greens as well as a root crop.

Fall is also the time to consider planting Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, and broccoli. These vegetables work well during the cooler weather when grown from small plants instead of seeds, which solves the shorter growing season. Harvesting these vegetables when they are very young and tender also provides an unexpected gourmet treat.

Lettuce plants thrive in the fall weather, and there are many types of heirloom and leaf lettuces to get you started on a gourmet salad. Choose lettuces like Boston, Bibb, Endive, and Romaine that will still be delicious late into the season. Other interesting greens are possible as well, like arugula, mustard greens, leeks, tender kohlrabi, swiss chard, chicory, and corn salad.

Some of our favorite salad herbs thrive in a cooler garden. You can easily add a gourmet taste to any salad when you add garden fresh herbs like chives, dill, chervil, cilantro, thyme, and a variety of parsley. Once you get all your cool weather gourmet ingredients together, it's time to put your salad together.

Dress salads lightly

The best way to enjoy the fresh vegetables from your cool weather harvest is in a big gourmet salad. Simple vinaigrette dressings will allow the natural flavors of your vegetables, greens, and herbs to come through. After all, you worked hard on your fall harvest, so shouldn't you taste your efforts first? The dressing should compliment, not compete.

Start with ingredients like olive oil, white wine, red wine, balsamic vinegar, and lemon juice, then combine sweet or tangy ingredients to twist the taste of your dressing to your liking. Then season with a dash of salt and pepper, or a little of those prized herbs you just harvested from your fall garden.

Of course, fall crops of squash and pumpkin work perfectly along with your newly planted fall crops. When combining fresh vegetables with the earthy flavors of roasted butternut squash, or pumpkin, for instance, choose a sweet ingredient in your dressing, such as orange juice, maple syrup, or a little honey. Creating a gourmet garden salad in the fall season is all about a mix of flavors that are surprising as well as pleasingly warm and satisfying. You won't get that mix by drowning the salad in heavy dressing. So, keep it light, fresh, and perhaps a bit sweet so all the flavors play nice together!

Finishing gourmet touches

To make a fall gourmet garden salad even more interesting, compliment it with fanciful sprouts and crunchy seeds and nuts. Top with sweet or salty pecans, walnuts, almonds, or even a mixed nut combination. Roast the nuts first and put on the salad hot for even more fun. Sprout your own seeds for a real taste surprise. For example, put radish seeds on a damp paper towel and you'll get sprouts that taste like radishes. That's a bit more gourmet than alfalfa sprouts, don't you think?

Add even more gourmet flair to your garden salad with some smoked fish, sweet sausage, or even some fruit. Pretty slices of red pear or Granny Smith apples adds a lot of impact to a garden salad. Don't forget the cheese! Just about every gourmet salad will benefit when you add a topping of crumbled Bleu cheese, Roquefort, Gorgonzola, or Feta.

When you taste your late season gourmet garden salad created by your own hands, you'll be happy you took the time to plant and nurse your garden along through the cooler weather. Harvesting a garden before the growing season ends can be a challenge. But the pride and pleasure you get from serving salads made with the vegetables from your own garden will make the experience unforgettable.