Herbs and greens make nutritious summer meals.
Mixed salads are the food rage of the 1990s, with restaurants offering a dizzying array of greens with exotic names and produce suppliers bagging ready-made salads to sell in supermarkets. In fact, the National Garden Bureau proclaimed 1997 the “Year of the Mesclun,” a tribute to the French Provençal tradition of mixing tender young lettuces and other greens into healthy, tastebud-pleasing salads.
Despite the attention to mixed greens, however, a mystique surrounds the art of preparing them at home. But making a variation on the French mesclun is remarkably easy, especially given the increasingly diverse selection of greens and herbs available from produce suppliers.
The traditional European mesclun draws upon a combination of several mild fresh leaf lettuces, fresh herb tips, young pot herbs, and a variety of wild or strong greens. The French-style mesclun calls upon chervil and mâche (a small, leafy green), an Italian variation calls for basil, and a Thai mesclun draws upon mint and cilantro. You can vary the ingredients to make a mesclun to suit your tastes. A spicy blend, for example, may contain some pungent arugula and watercress or decorative nasturtium flowers and leaves. A bitter blend may contain chicory and radicchio (a red variety of chicory) with a base of mild lettuces and herbs.
A mesclun can serve as a healthy complement to vegetables, grains, cheeses, legumes, fish, or meats. Serve pasta on a bed of fresh greens, for example, or use the greens as a visually appealing, healthy backdrop for steamed, broiled, or grilled foods—just about any food tastes better when combined with the varied flavors of a mesclun.
The variety of salad mixes you can make is limitless, but all mescluns will be bound by a common thread: the health benefits. Fresh greens generally provide vitamin C, beta-carotene, fiber, and folic acid. Some greens—particularly strong-tasting ones such as arugula, watercress, and chicory—contain higher amounts of calcium; arugula, for example, provides 150 mg of calcium per cup. Often, the stronger the flavor and the darker the green, the higher the nutrients. One exception is the paler mâche, which is higher in beta-carotene and vitamin C than romaine. (Mâche is quite perishable, though, which is why you’ll have trouble finding it in markets.)
I like to use sorrel, with its sharp lemon flavor, or salad burnett for its cucumber flavor. For interesting taste and texture, add the fresh young leaves of such healing herbs as angelica, borage, and yarrow, along with edible flowers such as nasturtium (its leaves are tasty, too), calendula petals, red clover blossoms, borage flowers, heartsease (tri-colored Johnny-jump-ups), and bee balm petals. Not only are these flowers nutritious, they’re also beautiful.
Wild greens often provide more nutrients than cultivated varieties. Unsprayed dandelion has twice the calcium of spinach and chard, and is an effective diuretic. Unlike prescription diuretics, however, dandelion is rich in potassium, so it doesn’t deplete the body of this vital mineral. It is also high in lecithin, which is being researched for use in treating liver disease.
Lamb’s-quarters is another green high in beta-carotene, vitamin C, and calcium, as well as riboflavin (vitamin B2), which is essential to the immune system. One-half cup of violet flowers and leaves contain as much vitamin C as four oranges and more than the U.S. Recommended Daily Allowance of vitamin A.
Purslane (the common weed that the gardeners among you may have sworn to obliterate) contains omega-3 fatty acids and adds a lemony tang to salads. Plantain, orach, Good-King-Henry, and amaranth are nutritious wild greens whose use in salads has won the praise of many. Use only the fresh, very young leaves of these plants (overly mature greens are tough to chew and taste bitter).
Before you go gathering, though, think twice—you need to be knowledgeable about foraging for food, or risk poisoning yourself. As with salad greens, many wild greens can be grown from seeds available by mail order (see “Growing greens” on page 61).
Common culinary herbs can also add nutritional value to your salad. Generally speaking, culinary herbs help promote digestion, circulation, assimilation of nutrients, and elimination of toxins. During the spring and summer, I snip the top 1 to 2 inches from my mild culinary herb plants—including dill, chervil, basil, lemon balm, cilantro, tarragon, fennel, mint, and chives—and toss them into the mesclun (I suggest using only about three herb tops per person).
The selection of ingredients is key to gaining nutritional benefits from your mesclun, but the ratio in which you mix the ingredients is key to good taste. A common complaint about mixed green salads is that they “taste like weeds.” In my experience, this is because many people overdo it on the strong-flavored herbs and greens, or they use greens that are too mature. The younger the greens, the more you can use. Here are a few more tips on selecting herbs and greens to make a good salad:
• Start with a large base of mild greens, such as lettuce and/or spinach, to help novices develop a taste for mixed green salads. I suggest using about three parts mild leafy greens to one part of a combination of herbs and strong greens.
• A combination of lettuces and greens makes for a tasty salad, but use sour, bitter, and intensely flavored herbs and greens sparingly. The varying colors and textures make for a stunning presentation, and the varying nutritional content provides a balanced combination of vitamins and minerals.
• Woody herbs such as oregano, savory, thyme, rosemary, and sage are too strong to add directly to the mesclun, but they make wonderful flavorings for infused oils and vinegars. I use dressing sparingly (1/4 teaspoon per serving), both to cut calories and to ensure that I can taste the flavors of the mesclun.
• Most of an herb’s nutrients are found in the tips, so add a few whole tips of several culinary herbs to your salad mix. Choose a few mild herbs to avoid being overwhelmed by the flavor. I like to mix in several different herbs so that every bite of my salad will have a different taste. A pleasing combination comes from the tips of dill, basil, and mint, but do some experimenting with other combinations, and make the mesclun yours. 8
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