Jane McLeod: The art of a mesclun mix

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Imagine being a gatherer - as opposed to a hunter - and having to wait until this great white blanket of snow covering our valley floor melted before those first little edible green shoots poking through the soil could be gathered and eaten. Cravings aside, it's understandable that, at the earliest opportunity, the hardier spring herbs such as chervil and parsley filled bowls to overflowing and were added to the repast to be eaten by the handful - manners forgotten.

Nowadays, of course, we just need to cruise through the produce section to satiate the need for something green. One of these ideal greens is a comparatively new import from France called mesclun. All the rage in the '90s in restaurants, mesclun eventually made its way to market produce shelves. Mesclun, meaning mixture, is a salad mix of immature or baby leaf greens. The traditional blend was chervil, arugula, endive and particular lettuces in precise proportions, but now, almost anything goes. The original idea was to touch on all taste and texture sensations - bitter, sweet, crunchy, tangy - combined with a rainbow of greens and bronzy reds for visual appeal.

As well as coming in a bag, mesclun is a simple crop that adapts well to our short season and only a few simple rules. Since lettuce forms the backbone of a mesclun mix, start with either a seed packet titled mesclun or a variety of packets of loose leaf lettuce cultivars of your choosing - the end goal being a bouquet of flavors, colors and textures. The seeds germinate at cool temperatures and can be sown in early spring when soil temperatures reach 40 degrees. Loosen soil to 4 inches, sow directly in rich, loamy, composted soil (garden or pot) in a 1/4 inch deep furrow and cover lightly. To encourage rapid growth, keep the soil constantly moist, not soggy, while the seeds germinate depending on air and soil temperature, but for two to three weeks on average. Soil too wet or too dry while lettuce grows will create bitter, tough greens. Sow successively in small amounts, at frequent intervals, in order to harvest often at a peak young stage. Scissor cut, don't pull, as this is a crop which indulges what they call the cut-and-come-again treatment.

Cut just above the growing crowns, about 1 inch, when the leaves reach at least 2 inches tall but not more than 6, dump into a sink of cool water, slosh around gently to remove dust, dirt and any hitchhikers, let the dirt settle, then place on paper towels to drain and pat dry or utilize a salad spinner. The latter will bruise the leaves, which causes limpness, so eat as soon as possible. Dry leaves are imperative, however, or a dressing light and simple won't adhere. What will frazzle this crop is hot temperatures, so once summer comes, if you can't create shade with a shade cloth or golf umbrella, move on to other tasks until early fall and one or two more crops.

But back to the mesclun lettuce mix - don't stop there - toss in some herbs such as lovage, sorrel, chervil, parsley, fennel or dill fronds, basil - whatever suits your taste buds. Add some young spinach, mustard greens, cresses, or collards. Mild or zesty, simple to complicated, tender to crunchy, high in nutrition - every mouthful will be different and beyond belief tender and flavorful.

Jane McLeod is a Master Gardener with the CSU Extension Routt County.

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