Culinary Trends: Mesclun
These mixtures of 'designer greens' originated in the Provence region of France. The origins and history of mesclun, how to serve it, what to serve it with, how to grow your own designer greens.
“Designer greens” are currently a grocery store rage, replacing lettuce as the ingredient of choice in American salad bowls. Mesclun is the term that refers to mixtures of tender young greens that can include chervil, arugula, escarole, endive, watercress, and chicory, among others. It originated in the Provence region of France and is a recent import to the States.
Mescluns fall into two broad classes: mild and piquant. The milder blends may use a fair amount of lettuce, mixing together several different varieties, while the piquant blends include peppery cresses and tangy mustard greens. It is most popularly sold pre-mixed and bagged in the produce department of large grocery stores, sometimes labelled as “European” field greens.
Although ingredients in mesclun are varied, they are all noted for their tasty combinations of colors, flavors, and textures. An entire rainbow of greens is represented, from light green to deep emerald and even bronzy reds and pinks. Some types of greens have a frilly, lacy leaf, while others are chunky and solid, or crackling with sharp, serrated edges. When used for a salad, mescluns do not usually need other ingredients (carrots, tomatoes, etc.) as they are colorful and flavorful enough on their own. It is possible for each mouthful of mesclun to have a different taste. Textures will range from tender to slightly crunchy.
Mescluns are best served with simple dressings, such as oil and vinegar or a light vinaigrette. From a culinary standpoint, strong flavors such as Bleu cheese, garlic, or anchovy paste are best avoided, as they will overpower the fresh flavors of the greens. The nutritional value of mesclun greens is considerable. Lettuces and chicory greens are loaded with vitamins A and C, as well as potassium. Various other types of greens contain appreciable amounts of calcium and phosphorous.
Bagged mixtures of greens are the simplest way to purchase mesclun. If you shop at a farmer’s market or a grocery with an extensive selection of produce, you may be able to mix your own greens. Buy anything that looks interesting and experiment with it. Specific greens to look for include escarole, chicory, cresses, endive, mustards, arugula, purslane, dandelion greens, red lettuces, and radicchio. Fresh, leafy herbs like parsley and fennel are also good candidates.
The best way to customize mesclun to your own palate is to grow your own. Meslun is a simple crop that does not require a green thumb. Comb garden centers and seed catalogs for seed mixtures that include a variety of greens in one packet, or buy individual packets of your favorite greens (or the ones you’d like to try that are otherwise unavailable). Greens are easily grown in the ground and even in containers, as they are very shallow rooted. Because they will be harvested when young, seeds can be sown quite thickly and do not need to be thinned. Here are a few tips for growing mesclun:
- Before sowing seeds, loosen the soil to a depth of at least four inches and consider adding an organic fertilizer like compost.
- Plant in cool weather; mesclun is a spring and fall crop. According to the National Garden Bureau, seeds will germinate at temperatures as low as 45 degrees and the greens grow best at temperatures from 55 to 70 degrees.
- Irrigate well. Greens that lack sufficient water may be tough and bitter.
- Sow seeds at two week intervals to provide for a continued harvest.
- Begin harvesting the baby greens in one to five weeks, depending on the temperature and condition of the soil. Two to three weeks is average. Greens should be two to six inches high at harvest time.
- To harvest: use scissors to cut the leaves just above the growing crowns. The National Garden Bureau reports that leaving the roots indisturbed in this way will allow the plants to regrow quickly.
- During hot weather, water often, provide afternoon shade, and harvest very early.