My garden is taking care of myself right now—aside from daily weeding—so I thought we could move indoors and spend a little time in the kitchen. After the garden, it’s my favorite place.

We eat a lot of salad, my husband and I, to take advantage of the picked-that-day freshness of our garden bounty. (Browse my Instagram feed for a sampling.) I make the usual spinach or kale concoctions, and all manner of slaw, and I adore roasted vegetable salads. But today I’m here to talk lettuce.

If you have your own garden, visit a farmer’s market, or have a generous gardening neighbor, you know how tender homegrown lettuce can be. I don’t know what commercial growers do to achieve such robust leaves, but the lettuce from my garden is delicate and, for the cook, a bit fussy. Pour a vinaigrette over those tissue-thin leaves and you end up with a soggy clump. Yuck.

I’m here to help. In fact, this technique isn’t just for garden lettuce; it will work for any salad. I’ve been doing something like this for a while, but I’m happy to give credit where credit is due: Joshua MacFadden’s Six Seasons: A New Way with Vegetables.

Start with clean, dry lettuce in a large bowl. My lightweight stainless bowl is a workhorse. Sprinkle vinegar on the leaves—just a little—and toss gently. WITH YOUR HANDS. The lettuce is tender, remember? It needs your loving touch.

That’s little gem lettuce, a mini-Romaine. Romaine is sturdier than leaf lettuce, but these homegrown heads are nothing like supermarket Romaine.

Back to the bowl. Taste a leaf to see if you can taste the vinegar. Next, season with salt and pepper. Go easy! Toss again with your hands and taste. The beauty in this technique is that the vinegar helps the salt and pepper stick to the leaves.

Add oil. Again, be sparing. Oil is heavy and will crush your leaves if you overdo it. Toss one more time with your hands. Taste and adjust. Ta-da!

If the finished salad will contain herbs or thinly sliced radishes—anything lightweight—I add them before I dress the leaves, but weightier ingredients go on top afterward.

Here I’ve garnished with toasted pistachios and avocado, and served the salad with an artichoke and chard frittata, made with eggs from my neighbor. Delicious lunch! Should I do a frittata tutorial next time? Let me know what other yard-to-table mysteries I might be able to solve. In the meantime, enjoy your salad days!

About Sonja
Sonja Yoerg grew up in Stowe, Vermont where she financed her college education by waitressing at the Trapp Family Lodge. She earned a Ph.D. in biological psychology from the University of California, Berkeley and wrote a nonfiction book about animal intelligence, Clever as a Fox. Sonja is the author of four novels: House Broken, Middle of Somewhere, All the Best People, and the upcoming True Places. When she’s not traipsing around the world with her husband, Sonja can be found in her garden overlooking the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia.