A fresh leafy salad is something we all need from time to time, but are you bored with your usual salad leaves? Are you unsure of which to buy from the supermarket spread? If so, it’s time to explore some of the many alternative types of salad leaf available today.
No more boring salad
It is said that the effect of eating too much lettuce is ‘soporific’.(Beatrix Potter in The Tale of the Flopsy Bunnies)
There are so many salad leaves to choose from, but we all tend to get into a rut buying the same ones week after week.
- Balsamic dressing is rich with a touch of sweetness
- Liven up your leaves with this sunny Mediterranean lemon dressing
- Italian dressing is a tasty, full flavoured vinaigrette style dressing
If you have some outside space, of course, it’s great to have a big tub of mixed leaf “cut and come again type leaves”. A small tub will yield a surprising amount of salad over many weeks, as long as you remember to water.
We live in the heart of London, however, so I shop for my salad. In the summer, my weekly shop will usually contain several types of lettuce leaves: some little gem, red gem, romaine (but not iceberg!) and the odd bag of rocket or arugula, according to what is available on the shelf.
Now, this selection will produce plenty of tasty and varied salads, and you should definitely keep enjoying lettuce. But sometimes you want more and the range available today is greater than it has ever been.
I jettisoned iceberg from my salad bowl many years ago. I know many people love the watery crunch but I only like it cooked and suspect boring iceberg was the reason why the flopsy bunnies were so soporific.
Whichever lettuce you love, you can vary your salads simply by using different dressings. Switching your salad leaves, however, gives you so many more options for flavour and texture.
So if you want more from your salads, it’s time to explore what the world of fresh leaves has to offer.
Everyday salad bowl additions
Here are a few everyday leafy greens that you can find in almost every supermarket, but may not always think to add to your salads.
Rocket / arugula
Whether you call it arugula, rucola or rocket, this peppery, spicy leaf makes a big impact and can be quite divisive. While not everyone loves it, those who do often adore it. In recent years it has become one of the most popular types of salad leaf and can be found in every supermarket.
Hugely popular in Italy, a simple rocket salad cuts through the heaviness of pasta or rich meat dishes and makes a perfect side dish.
Spinach is delicious raw. Buy baby leaves or use the larger versions and strip out tougher stalks. Full of flavour, spinach will stand up to the same punchy dressings as rocket and it is delicious with beetroot.
Bok choy / pak choi
This delicious oriental cabbage has twice the value in a salad. There are tasty leaves to shred and cruchy stalks that are great cut into matchsticks.
Add to a mixed salad or make it the star of the show in my Asian slaw.
There are so many cabbages with flavours from deeply bitter to gentle and sweet. All provide a little crunch in your salad. The classic slaw with cabbage and carrot is delicious, but it can also add variety to mixed salad.
Lambs lettuce / corn salad
With a slightly nutty flavour, this nutrient-rich leaf makes a great foil to bitter salad leaves like rocket and watercress. Full of vitamins, it’s great for balancing out your salad bowl.
Belgian endive or chicory
A traditional favourite in France, Belgian endive is stylish and delicious. Also known as chicory, it has subtle notes of bitter and sweet at the same time, and plenty of crunch.
The leaves’ boat-like shape is often used to hold other elements, such as creamy cheeses, nuts, and tangy vinaigrettes. It is delicious with roquefort and toasted walnuts in a truly classic French salad.
It looks like baby rhubarb when growing but don’t be afraid to eat these delicious tender leaves!
There are many recipes out there for cooking with chard, but the young leaves make a tasty addition to a salad. It tastes a little like spinach and the colourful stems of the rainbow varieties add visual interest to salads.
Peppery and delicious and a traditional favourite, most of us know the tiny mustard cress microgreens. We all grew them as children on nothing but a damp paper towel, and added them to egg salad sandwiches.
You probably also know the fiercely assertive watercress that the Victorians adored. A nutritional powerhouse, this spicy leaf makes a great side salad and alternative to rocket, but it also goes well with sweet vegetables in a mixed salad.
Try watercress with honey mustard dressing and chopped beetroot.
Watercress needs very specific (wet) conditions to grow, but there is a great, more tolerant alternative if you want to grow your own. American land cress tastes very similar to watercress and can be served in the same way but it needs soil and regular watering, rather than a fresh stream.
More unusual salad leaves
A distinctive and tasty leafy green that originates from Japan, mizuna has become popular on restaurant menus in recent years. Mizuna and the less common mibuna are brassica leaves, from the same family as rocket or arugula. The flavour is milder but it still has that slightly spicy, peppery flavour.
Mizuna leaves have feathery, serrated edges and most has a vibrant green colour, though you can also find red mizuna. It looks great in a simple salad or as a salad garnish.
Purslane’s tender leaves have a subtle lemony tang, which adds a delightful zest to salads. Often mixed with other greens, vegetables, and herbs, deliciously juicy purslane has a pleasing touch of crunch.
It is high in omega-3 fatty acids, vitamins A and C, and minerals like potassium and magnesium, making purslane a great addition to main meal salads.
Alternatively, enjoy it as a simple side dish with a drizzle of olive oil and a sprinkle of salt.
Escarole, or broad-leaved endive, looks like a head of lettuce but tastes more like chicory, with a touch of bitterness. Also called Batavian endive, grumolo, scarola, and scarole, it is used like kale in Italian cooking.
Crunchy and robust with curled edges, this crisp leaf is great in hot weather salads where that bitter depth and complexity will contrast with sweeter lettuce and balance rich dishes when served in a side salad.
They may be a nuisance in the lawn, but they are also free food! So instead of spraying them, grab those slightly bitter leaves while they are young and add them to your salad. It’s a lot more thrifty than buying fancier types of bitter salad leaf from the supermarket.
Dandelions have a long history as a medicinal plant. Their reputation as a diuretic is commemorated in the vulgar French folk name, pissenlit (let’s translate that as ‘wet-the-bed’!).
Widely believed to be good for the liver and added to herbal remedies for skin problems, they are as full of vitamins and minerals as other classic foraging greens.
Dandelions combine well with sweeter dressings like honey mustard dressing.
I grew up with amaranth as love-lies-bleeding, an unusual flower that looked exotic in an English garden.
The leaf, however, is callaloo, the Caribbean spinach-like leaf vegetable that features in so many traditional Jamaican dishes.
In salads, the young leaves can be used like spinach, and the protein-rich grains can be used too.
Tangy, citrussy sorrel is delicious in salads if harvested young as a baby leaf. The unique lemony flavour is absolutely delicious and it makes a lovely contrast with more common types of salad leaf.
Like Belgian endive, it works nicely with strong, creamy cheeses and toasted nuts, but it will work in any green or mixed salad. A simple sorrel salad makes a lovely side dish to rich cooked one-pots like lasagna or moussaka.
Curly endive or frisée is, well, frilly! The unusual form gives it an unusual texture with a bit of tenderness and a bit of crunch, and it adds visual interest to a salad.
With a slightly bitter, peppery flavour, it’s well worth including in your salad mix.
Certainly usual, Tatsoi an Asian green, also known as spinach mustard. With rounded, dark green leaves and a robust, slightly peppery flavour it makes a delicious and distinctive addition to a salad. Pair it with a soy or Miso dressing.
Salad recipes to explore
Salads don’t have to be all about the leaves. You can do so much with other vegetables and fruits too. Explore my salad recipes for new ideas.
- Green Italian salad with antipasti – for an effortlessly impressive lunch with friends
- Kale, chard and watermelon salad – unusual and refreshing
- Courgette salad – with a delicious lemon dressing
- Carrot salad – ultimate French style
- Asian slaw – crunchy, tangy and delicious
- For more inspiration, read my guide to how to make a salad!