By Roberta Bailey
The National Gardening Bureau deemed 1997 the “Year of the Mesclun” and from my vantage point in Palermo, they called it right. The cool spring and well-timed rains of summer created ideal conditions for growing salad greens. The year is not over yet: A bed of mesclun seeded in September could feed you until spring. Few things are more beautiful (or flavorful) than a wide bed of mesclun with its variegated hues of green and red with its luster, and with its leaf texture. One could work the crop into an herb garden or a perennial border.
Mesclun originated in southern France. The word mesclun derives from a Nicois word meaning “mixture”. Traditionally, mesclun was an assortment of wild young shoots and leaves gathered in the early spring on hills in Southern France. The French have been eating these piquant greens for hundreds of years, eventually cultivating them in their kitchen gardens.
Only in the last 10 years have these “designer greens” become popular in the United States. Before the late ’80s, few restaurants served anything but pale iceburg and pale tomatoes. Romaine was a daring statement. The ’90s have seen mesclun mixes make their way from chic restaurants and farmer’s markets to pre-packaged bags on the supermarket shelf.
Yet the French are surely cringing. Americans have once again stirred their tradition into our cultural melting pot. Although their wildgathered greens had to have been a mixture of whatever one came upon, traditional French recipes for mesclun are very specific as to ingredients and their proportions.
Nice is a market town for one of the most favored and famous produce growing areas in Provence. Mesclun Nicoise is a sharp, tastebud-stirring mix of equal portions of broadleaf cress, arugula or rouquette, cultivated dandelion, curly endive, and Spadona, a pale, broadleaf, cutting chicory.
Provencal mesclun is the most traditional recipe. The milder ingredients maintain tenderness and flavor even as the weather gets hot. The standard proportions are two parts looseleaf or cutting lettuce to one part each arugula, chervil, and curly endive.
Another mix, Misticanza, comes from the Piedmont region of northern Italy and consists of five parts lettuce to four parts various chicories. This is the only traditional recipe that includes radicchio, but doesn’t include arugula. Any combination of cutting lettuces, chosen for texture, color, and body or form, can be mixed with curly endive, Spadona cutting chicory, Treviso radicchio (a red leaf chicory with leaves like Belgian endive; its leaves turn red once past the heat of summer), Castelfranco radicchio (a round leaf chicory with red, white and green variegation that colors without cold weather), and Ceriolo (a very cold hardy, bitter, green chicory).
Melting Pot Flavors
Once in American soils, mesclun took on ingredients of its own. A mild mesclun can consist of lettuce alone, commonly including Red Salad Bowl, Salad Bowl, royal Oakleaf, Lollo Rossa, Deer Tongue, Reine de Glaces, Rouge d’Hiver romaine, and various Batavian lettuces. Aside from lettuce, mesclun can include mache or corn salad, mustards, orach, sorrel, parsley, basil, fennel, chervil, cutting celery, chives, purslane, dandelion, claytonia, arugula, escarole, watercress, tatsoi, mizuna, kale and young pea vines. Edible flowers, such as calendula, bachelor buttons, chives, nasturtium, violet and pea blossoms, have also made their way into blends. The simplest mix consists of two parts lettuce and one part each of curly endive and chervil.
These days, most seed catalogs list at least one mesclun seed mix. Some have custom mixes for specific cooking purposes or growing seasons. Some sell separate lettuce and mustard portions. Many sell seed separately so that Hgajrd|nerscaj? mix, jmd grow their own blend of piquant, peppery, bitter and mild flavored salad greens.
Culture and Harvest
The fast-growing mesclun needs a rich, loamy, welldrained soil that is high in organic matter and loose in structure. Work 1 to 3 inches of fine compost into the top few inches of soil to accommodate the shallow roots, the pH should be slightly add to neutral. Raised beds can improve the drainage of heavy, clay soils.
Soil needs to be constantly moist, but not soggy. Wet to dry moisture extremes will stress the greens, causing them to turn bitter and tough and to bolt early.
Seed can be sown as soon as the ground can be worked in spring. Most will germinate at 40 degrees F., although lettuce does best at 60 degrees. Sow seeds 1/4-inch deep in wide rows or short blocks; long, thin rows tend to bolt earlier. Seed can be raked into the soil or covered with fine compost. Shake the packet to mix the seed before sowing.
As greens are picked very young, little or no thinning is necessary. A well prepared bed also precludes weeding. Spot thin or weed as need be.
Harvest begins once greens reach a height of 2 inches. Shearing mesclun with scissors is fast and reduces wilt caused by bruising. Cut or pinch greens just above the growing crowns. If greens are picked frequently and are kept less than 6 inches in height, harvest can extend as long as five weeks. Trimmed greens will be ready to harvest again in a few weeks, if kept watered. A top-dressing of compost or a watering with a fish emulsion-seaweed fertilizer is beneficial. Succession plantings every 10 to 14 days ensure a steady supply of tender young greens.
In Maine, our relatively cool summers mean we can harvest mesclun from spring until fall. During the heat of summer, it does best in partial shade. I plant my midsummer greens under our grape arbor, or raspberries, and in beds that are shaded from the afternoon sun. Plantings in August and September can be covered with polyester row covers for harvest into December. Greens in coldframes can be mulched and overwintered, especially when we have good snow cover. Greenhouses and grow lights are also options. Once picked, mesclun should be handled gently. Rinse and let it drip dry. If not used immediately, wrap the leaves in damp towels, seal them in plastic, and refrigerate They will last several days if handled carefully.
Traditionally, mesclun is served with a simple vinaigrette of good olive oil, vinegar, fine herbes, garlic, and even anchovies. Simple dressings bring out the delicate flavors as well as accent the pungent herbs. Greens wilted in butter or stir-fried in hot oil are delicious additions to fresh vegetable dishes or over pasta.
1/4 c. olive oil
1/4 c. vegetable oil
2 T. wine vinegar
3 T. fresh lemon or lime juice
1/4 to 1/2 t. salt
1 T honey or maple syrup
1 t. Dijon mustard (optional)
basil, oregano, black pepper and minced garlic to taste
Whisk together all ingredients.
1 to 2 cloves garlic, minced
1/3 c. olive oil
1/4 t. salt
3 T. yogurt
1 T. mayonnaise
1/2 t. dried or 1 t. fresh basil
1/4 t. dried or 1/2 t. fresh dill and thyme
Whisk together all ingredients, adjust seasonings.
Slice some very good, hearty bread, then cube it. Lay it on a cookie sheet. Mince or press 1 to 3 cloves of garlic and mix with good olive oil. Brush cubes with oil and salt lightly. Bake at 400 degrees until crisp. Remove from oven and cool.
Simple Creek Salad
In a wide, shallow salad bowl, toss mesclun greens with the basic vinaigrette dressing (above). Layer with sliced cucumbers, red onions and ripe tomatoes. Crumble feta cheese on to the top, then add brined Greek olives. Garnish with freshly ground black pepper.
Radicchio and Greens with Hot Dressing
1 small head butterhead lettuce
1 c. arugula
1 medium-size head radicchio
1/4 c. olive oil
3 T. balsamic vinegar
1 T. red wine vinegar
1 minced shallot
1 minced clove garlic
1 t. chopped fresh basil
Tear lettuce and radicchio into bite-size pieces and place in a large salad bowl along with arugula. Heat oil, vinegars, garlic and shallots in a small pan. Stir and pour over greens, tossing gently. Sprinkle salad with minced basil and toss again. Serve immediately. 4 servings.