What's for lunch? Fresh herb salad

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August 20, 2007

One of the first things I did after I moved into my house was plant an herb garden. Long before my little courtyard was cleared of boxes and past-owner debris, it was filling up with pots of mint, planters of rosemary, and thyme and plastic flats of (yet to be planted) basil and sage. I think this is partially due to a chronic tendency to procrastinate—why unpack in a dusty attic when you can be playing with potting soil in the sunshine? There’s also the culinary convenience. Instead of having to run to the store for a $2 clamshell packet of chives when a recipe calls for only a teaspoon, I can just step outside and snip what I need.

But the real reason may just be that cooking herbs are my kind of plants, meaning they thrive on abuse and neglect. Forget to water thyme and rosemary for four days? A good drenching will put them back on track. Gotta decimate the basil plants for a batch of pesto? The extensive cutting keeps them from growing woody and brings out new leaf growth. And so on.

Since my broken arm has forced me to turn to bagged, prewashed salad mixes (there’s no way I’m gonna wash lettuce one-handed—and slicing carrots and cucumbers sent veggie wheels flying all over the kitchen when I tried. I won’t even go in to how the tomatoes fared…), I’ve taken a page from Patricia Wells, one of my favorite cookbook writers. She once wrote about taking walks in her garden before dinner to pick sprigs of this, that, and another herb to add to her salads.

It has been such fun to do the same and play with herb combinations to see how they go together. Today, I tried tarragon, chives, and parsley tossed with butter lettuce. No measuring—just a few sprigs of each thrown into a coffee cup then roughly snipped with scissors. The parsley cut some of the strong anise-y flavor of the tarragon and the chives brought out the sweetness in the mild lettuce leaves…I didn’t even use dressing—just lemon juice and olive oil—the combo was so good.

I’m also really loving mint—and lots of it—with lettuce. In fact, I razed the plant two days ago so I could let friends taste my discovery. The stems looked like they’d been hit with a lawn mower and I worried I might have gone too far. But true to fresh herb form, the mint’s back and looking better than ever. I’ve got plenty for tomorrow’s salad—and tonight’s mojito, if I want one.

—Mary Margaret Chappell, food editor