Eat This

A Small Green Engineers Its Own Survival

IMG_2299 We live in enlightened times.  Our choices of salad material are now expansive.  I've planted soft-leaved stuff with fun names like Les Oreilles du Diable, or the devil's ears.  I've planted endives and chicories and escaroles. I've planted mustard greens and tatsoi.  I've planted radicchio, which is interestingly tricky in that some varieties don't always head up properly.

I've planted claytonia or miner's lettuce, which is named for the miner 49-ers who survived on it as smelly desperadoes panning for gold, and which grows wild in the grass at my mother-in-law's in Red Bluff, California.  She never bothers to eat it.  Too many other attractive greens in her part of the world.

I'm sort of in the same camp.  I sow all kinds of salad material, but all I really want to eat is arugula.  I love its hot flavor and happily eat bowl after bowl all by myself all summer long.  And since arugula is arguably the easiest of all crops–scatter seed on top of the soil every few weeks and there you go–I tend to have enough arugula to be able ignore whatever else is happening on the greens front.

One of the salads that I've sown and forgotten about is mâche or corn salad. It forms pretty little rosettes almost too small to bother with, and I never found the flavor terribly interesting. 

In her excellent encyclopedia Vegetables from Amaranth to Zucchini, Elizabeth Schneider talks about a general sense of disappointment with American mâche.

As a shopper with nationalist preferences, I would like to recommend the American product.  But so far, imports have been superior: more succulent, complex, with a surprising floral flavor and a hint of black truffle.  Domestic corn salad that I have sampled has been too small and underdeveloped in flavor; it looks charming and has a pleasing texture, but is bland.

That was my feeling, too.  A green not really worth thinking about.

But for the last few years, the mâche I planted in some forgotten spring has been seeding itself around my garden, mainly in between some everbearing strawberries, where it's survived because it's been out of my way.

This year, I suddenly paid attention.  First of all, mâche was the first edible thing in the garden, right there looking perky as soon as the snow retreated.  Second, my mâche tastes amazing, like nothing I remember from previous crops.  Pinch off a rosette and pop it in and your mouth fills with perfume.  It's more like eating Chanel Coco than a salad green.

It's still a ridiculous crop in the sense that you'd have to cut an acre of this short stuff to make a single salad.  My friend Martha, who was a chef for years, informs me that even in France, where everybody eats it all the time, mâche is really expensive.  But it clearly is worth having as an addition to other greens.  In her mâche entry, Elizabeth Schneider includes a recipe for a salad of mâche, Belgian endive, walnuts, and violets.  Sounds like a properly exquisite treatment for an exquisite little green.

As for why my mâche suddenly tastes so amazing, it could just be the weather–or it could be that speedy evolution seed experts talk about in the vegetable garden.  Of course, since I've paid no attention to mâche, I've selected for nothing.  But it's possible that the perfumiest of my plants were the ones that went to seed and scattered their flavor genes all over my strawberry bed.  Or that bland American mâche is reverting back to an older, more perfumy type.

In any case, the mâche and I have co-evolved in a way that guarantees happiness for both species.  It has found a way to please the gardener, so it stays in the garden.

Posted by on April 29, 2009 at 4:52 am, in the category Eat This.
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11 responses to “A Small Green Engineers Its Own Survival”

  1. Rosella says:

    We lived in Europe for many years, and mache (or salade de ble) was always my favourite, so I was really excited when I saw seed available here. I planted it late winter, but so far have seen only about a dozen little plants emerge so can’t comment on any difference in US vs. European taste. I will be watching and tasting though, and will also make sure it is allowed to seed itself around.

    The good stuff though is available in bags here, and as a late winter salad with orange slices and avocado it is wonderful. The soft silky textures of the mache and the avocado combine incredibly well with the tang of the orange.

  2. Hap says:

    The question must be asked, is it moral to eat psychic mâche? How else could it know what flavor to evolve, only to guarantee you co-evolved happiness?

  3. David says:

    What?! You mean you can make salad from something other than Iceberg lettuce?!
    Just kidding (a little)
    I just discovered leaf lettuce last year, when I grew it for the first time. I thought myself quite the self-sufficient frontiersman every time I harvested some and made a salad out of it. Now I am hooked. This year I am growing mini lettuces just for the fun of it but I will sure try arugula and this mache you speak about.
    Another term perhaps more applicable here is “adaptation”. Maybe your lettuce and your strawberries “hooked up” and now you are enjoying the fruit of their union. 😉

  4. Michele Owens says:

    Well, Hap, that’s the great mystery with all domesticated plants. They’ve evolved to please us, and I’m convinced that they manipulate us in spooky and subtle ways.

    David, interesting possibility! Sex between strawberries and greens.

  5. LauraBee says:

    I grew mâche in my winter garden here ( impossible to grow any kind of salad greens here in the Central Valley any other time ), and was disappointed in the flavor as well. Had you posted this a few weeks back, I might have been inspired to leave the bolting rosettes instead of tossing them to the compost. **sigh** I’ll know better next year.
    Regarding that salad of mâche & violets. I’ve always thought to try a nasturtium & miner’s lettuce salad, but one is never ready when the other is.

  6. Michele Owens says:

    LauraBee, the violets, both viola odorata and my Johnny Jump-Ups, are actually blooming now. So my salad really is a possibility.

  7. Perhaps mache is like many other garden edibles (spinach, carrots, etc.) in that it needs a touch of cold or an actual frost in order to “sweeten” it and really bring out the intense flavors? That may explain why you like it so much more than your previous spring plantings.

  8. Michele Owens says:

    Kathy J., that could well be–and explain why the self-seeded stuff is better than the stuff I’d only be planting now.

  9. Gerg says:

    Miners Lettuce! thats funny. As a little kids growing up in the heart of the gold country, we ate claytoia before we even knew what it was called claytonia, or that it was edible for that matter…
    They were just so appealing with those big juicy leaves topped with little white flowers; they would carpet the ground under ancient oaks and we just browsed on them while building or defending our forts. More psychic veggies?

    Now I plant all kinds of greens, some on a whim, some because my girlfriend pulls them out of a mixed bag and says ‘I like this’.

    But my favorite is a Japanese variety from Kitazawa Seeds. It is a butterleaf called Okoyama Salad and it is subtle, sweet and crispy like no other. Somethings about the Japanese culture lends themselves well to creating wonderful veggies.

  10. Teresa says:

    Your garden looks very inviting. I wish mine will like yours, I will give to Aragula a try also watercress.

  11. Arugula Rules! I even had it on pizza in Italy…love it!

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