September 21, 2020

Lucky Number 7 and the Anatomy of a Salad

We humans are able to find a meal in almost any ecosystem. The Inuit, who inhabit various arctic regions, traditionally got as much as 99% of their calories from seals, narwhals, and fish. Other than the Inuit, most diets historically have relied on plant-based foods. Some groups ate/eat a completely vegetarian regimen, such as the Jains in India. Hunter-gatherer societies were/are heavily reliant on plants, because meat isn't always available. Let's face it; even the best hunters sometimes come home empty-handed. From a nutritional perspective, the garden can offer a significantly broader selection of food choices than supermarket shelves. Left to your own devices in your own garden and kitchen, you might focus on growing foods solely based on taste. But, if you choose nutrition as a focus, how should you go about deciding what to grow?

You may be tempted to grow a collection of superfoods. Due to the paucity of nutrition data about less well-known foods, internet sources compare exotic foods with common foods, generally finding many times the level of a particular vitamin or mineral. Thus is born a superfood. In the past couple of decades we have seen a parade of superstars, including a├žai fruit from Brazil, moringa leaves from Africa, goji berries from China, and quinoa from the Andes of South America. These foods have a nearly cult following here in the United States with tantalizing, over-hyped health claims. Because moringa grows so beautifully in my yard, I have investigated those nutritional claims. According to WebMD, the leaves have 7 times more vitamin C than oranges and 15 times more potassium than bananas. Moringa's reputation makes it sound almost like a vitamin pill. Don't believe it. Based on nutritional reputation, I might choose to plant half my yard with moringa. I will spare you the exact details, but you would have to grow, harvest, prepare, and eat vast amounts of moringa to get the quantities of nutrients that are being claimed. 

Moringa leaves

It is easy to fall into the trap of seeking a magic bullet for all that ails us. I find myself wishing that dark chocolate were a more potent panacea. Moringa has definite nutritional benefits; just don't fall for the superfood hype. Did you know that two ounces of Quirkistani Bazzle-wazzle has twenty-six ounces of protein, as much protein as two pounds of steak?

Even in the divisive and competitive world of nutrition advice, there is near universal agreement that eating lots of vegetables is a healthy option. Vegetables have historically been held in high regard due to their concentrated vitamins, especially vitamins A, C, and K; minerals, especially electrolytes; and more recently phytochemicals, especially antioxidants. Finally, there's the fiber bonus. There is a bit of a hiccup concerning absorption factors. How much of a given nutrient in a given food do we absorb? This may vary with each food, how the food is prepared, what else you eat with it, and your personal genetic predisposition. 

When I try to compare some of the greens that I currently grow, I am confronted with the sad reality of incomplete data. When I use the food-nutrient search facility of the oh-so-handy USDA FoodData Central to look up the nutritional components of katuk, I get ... zilch. If I were curious to know the nutritional differences between cranberry hibiscus and other edible hibiscus, I am hard pressed to find anything at all. As with many things health-related, we all make food and garden choices in the absence of complete knowledge. 


With incomplete and conflicting information, what's a nutritionally conscious gardener to do? Don't despair. When it comes to vegetables, follow Diane's non-scientifically based rule of thumb for backyard garden plants - for better nutrition, grow and eat a diversity of plants. If you prefer more specific direction, aim to eat from at least seven different plants every day. Lucky number seven. Why plant for diversity? With diversity comes a broader array of nutrients. Katuk is high in protein. Swiss chard is high in magnesium, iron, manganese, copper, potassium, and vitamin K. Broccoli leaves are high in vitamins A and C. Kale and collard greens are high in antioxidants and vitamin K. And on and on. With Diane's rule of thumb, you just plant many different edibles and eat a variety of what's in season every day. 

In Florida, I count on my perennial greens throughout the year - moringa, Malabar spinach, Okinawan spinach, and Surinam purslane. Over the summer and early fall, I look to cranberry hibiscus, edible hibiscus, sweet potato, molokhia, and katuk. Once the weather cools, I have an abundance of leafy greens - broccoli, bok choy, cauliflower, kale, beets, arugula, mustard, swiss chard, as well as many herbs. I keep one section for each perennial, one or two plants of each annual, and let the self-seeders do what they will. Each year I try out new greens.  

Diversity in the garden also leads to resilience in the event of garden pests. In any given season, some edibles may not grow and prosper, so it's wise to have a few backups. I never have a problem growing broccoli, but last year, some as yet unidentified pest arrived and chewed away all the leafy material just as the first broccoli florets were forming, leaving only the major spines of each leaf intact. It was a sorry sight to behold and a disappointment, but not devastating, as I had lots of other vegetables.

Broccoli stems left after pests devoured all the leaves.
Mustard greens behind the broccoli are unperturbed.

Once they're growing in the garden, it's easy enough to pack seven different greens into your daily chow. If you eat one large salad every day, you can make use of all that garden diversity. Over the years, I have come to rely on a simple formula for making an amazing variety of awesome garden salads. Here are the basics for such a salad:

  1. Leafy Greens
  2. Crunchy Vegetables
  3. Sweet Fruits
  4. Nuts/Seeds
  5. Strong Flavor Accent
  6. Optional Extras


Voila! Salad!

Leafy Greens

Here is where you can add a lot of garden plant diversity. Pick the greens when young and tender. 

  • Base: Choose a relatively mild green (or greens) as a base. From my garden that might be cranberry hibiscus, arugula, broccoli leaves, or kale. 
  • Mucilaginous: If you are adding mucilaginous leaves, such as Malabar spinach or Surinam purslane, keep these to less than a third of the greens. 
  • Strong/Bitter: Add strong or bitter greens, such as moringa, longevity spinach, or mustard greens. These can be quite intense, so keep these to less than a third of the greens.
  • Flavor: Depending on what's available, add a green with an engaging fresh flavor profile, such as basil, chives, cuban oregano, or mint.  You don't need to add much. The idea is that every so often, the eater will get a strong smell/taste of this leaf as they bite into it. 

Crunchy Vegetables

A little crunch makes the salad more fulfilling, something you can sink your teeth into. From my Florida summer garden that might include cactus paddle, shredded green papaya, or tindora fruit. More traditional choices include carrots and celery. 

Sweet Fruits

A touch of sweetness is a bright spot in a salad. Add whatever fresh fruit is in season. From bananas to peaches to pineapple, anything without seeds will usually work well. If you don't have anything fresh, dried fruit does the job. Think dried figs or cranberries.


Any type of nut or seed will add a deep, satisfying dry crunch to the salad - walnuts, peanuts, cashews, pecans, almonds, sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds, chickpeas, etc. They can be toasted, salted, and/or spiced.  

Strong Flavor Accents

If you have added a good portion of strong greens, consider matching them with another strong flavor, such as pickled ginger, blue cheese, minced garlic, onions, or some combination. Cooking onions or garlic just a little will mellow them out for those that don't go for their full-on sharp raw tastes. You can also make a quick herbal marinade with oil, vinegar, and the herbs/spices of your choice. Think rosemary, garlic, red pepper, honey, and mustard. You can grate fresh garlic, ginger or turmeric into the marinade. Although the fresh greens and crunchy vegetables provide the underlying freshness, these special flavor add-ins will make the salad pop. You can marinate particular elements of the salad, such as shredded green papaya, tofu, or rice, or you can pour the marinade over the whole salad as a dressing.

Optional Extras

If salad is the main course, you might want to add some protein. For me that means beans or tofu. Crumbled and marinated tofu works nicely. Each bean adds a different flavor, so add something you like. Do you have some leftover rice, barley, or quinoa? If it is flavorful, mix it in the salad as is. Or marinate it for more flavors. What's at the bottom of that bag? Is it granola, chocolate crumbs, corn chip crumbles, or bread crumbs? Add it to the salad for something unexpected. What's in season? If you have lots of avocados, add some avocado slices. If you're looking at a bucket full of sweet potatoes, cook some up, cool them down, and add to the salad. 

Use this salad formula as a guide to get your creative juices flowing. Feel free to deviate based on your personal taste preferences. Once you've created your masterpiece, add some oil and vinegar or the dressing of your choice. You can make your salad as simple or as complicated as your heart desires. You can make it a strictly local affair or bring in ingredients from afar. The garden ecosystem that you create can provide a great variety of leafy greens and vegetables for any salad.  

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