The first time I saw a photo of one of John Forti’s epic heirloom salads, I knew we had to make an episode about them. John’s salads are works of art and they have blown up and expanded my previously limited notions of what a garden salad can be. It’s like a salad big bang! His salads encourage us all to tune in, and look around our yards and gardens for leaves, flowers, seeds, and plants that we may not have previously thought of as salad material.
John Forti is a nationally recognized lecturer, garden historian, ethnobotanist and garden writer. He is also the Executive Director of Bedrock Gardens in Lee, NH where this episode was filmed. His recently published book is titled The Heirloom Gardener: Traditional Plants and Skills for the Modern World.
John believes that gardens should be a source of empowerment and biodiversity. We live in a world where it sometimes feels like we can’t make much of a difference. But by what we grow in our yard, with a small handful of seeds, we can create more biodiverse, healthy, flavorful and fresh local meals. For his heirloom salads, John draws on the historical idea of a compound salad which assembles a little bit of everything from the garden. Maybe some plants need to be thinned. Maybe you want to stop your basil from going to seed so you use the flower tips in your salad. Beyond lettuce, there is a whole universe of leaves, petals, seeds, and berries that can bring so much vibrant energy and biodiversity to a salad that it becomes incredibly nourishing. As for the flavors, these salads are so packed with complex aromas that they barely need a dressing. A splash of vinegar and oil and you’re good to go. Keeping the dressing simple allows you to really taste all the flavors that nature is providing for you.
For this salad, John collected lettuce, kale, sorrel, purslane, baby beet greens, lambsquarters, sweet cicely, salad burnet, naturtium leaves and flowers, borage flowers, basil and lemonbalm flowers, dill seeds and flowers, calendula, daylilies, violets, roses, and currants. For the dressing he used his homemade chive blossom vinegar and a splash of sesame oil.
As John says, gardening is a superpower, and it’s a wonderful way that we can make a difference. When we think of the Victory Gardens that were planted during wartime to ensure an adequate food supply, it’s a reminder of the power we all have to be food producers. Since the pandemic, many more people have taken up gardening. This salad is a colorful expression of the biodiversity that we tend in our gardens and on our plates, and a reminder that growing food is not only fun, but it can make a difference in the world.
John Forti’s Heirloom Salad
Find a big bowl or a harvesting basket. Walk around your yard, garden, or local wilderness area and find every edible leaf, flower, seed, or berry you can find.
- Lettuce, kale, arugula, beet greens or any other greens
- Baby beet greens
- Sweet Cicely
- Salad Burnett
- Naturtium leaves and flowers
- Borage flowers, violets, daylilies, beebalm, calendula, or any edible flower
- Basil, lemonbalm, chives, and other herbs for their flowers or their leaves
- Dill seeds, nigella seeds, poppy seeds
- Currants or any fruit or berry in season
- Carefully wash and spin dry all the ingredients. Tear up larger leaves and petals and leave smallers ones whole. Carefully assemble your salad, starting with leaves, and moving on to flowers, seeds, and fruit.
- Splash with some good quality vinegar and oil and toss gently. Serve right away.
Aube Giroux is a food writer, a James Beard award-winning documentary filmmaker and a passionate organic gardener and home cook, who shares her love of cooking on her farm-to-table blog, Kitchen Vignettes.