Mixing up your salad with mesclun

November 07, 1993|By Ron Ruggless | Ron Ruggless,Dallas Morning News

Salads have always been a mix-and-match affair, but lettuces these days are more mixed up than usual.

Borrowing from the lettuce assortments that are traditional in the south of France, fine restaurants for several years have served mixtures of baby lettuces, labeling them seasonal or field greens.

Sometimes chefs even borrow the Nicoise word for "mixture" -- mesclun -- and call the salad mesclun (pronounced variously mesk-LOON or MES-klun).

The colorful mixtures of greens have proved so popular, they are popping up in the produce sections of some groceries, where they come in ready-to-serve boxed assortments of 10 to 15 greens.

Mesclun has no rules. "For me, it's a variety of lettuces combined -- and the more the merrier," says chef Russell Hodges. "The objective is to combine some bitter greens with mild greens, some textures of soft greens with some more chewy greens. The variety has some thought behind it."

Mesclun remains a study in contrasts, says Joe La Barba, head of procurement for a produce company. "It's a very bright salad with a lot of contrasting colors," he says. "There's also a lot of varied textures in the salad itself.

"You've got everything from arugula, which has a very nutty flavor, to mizuna, a lacy leafed item. You've got baby savoy spinach, radicchio (a red Italian chicory) and eight types of baby lettuces and occasionally beet tops. There usually are 10 or more different greens, depending on what's in season. It varies all the time."

For home gardeners, a mesclun mix might include arugula, chervil, endive, escarole, leaf lettuces, mache, mizuna, radicchio, red mustard and watercress.

Such a variety has for generations been what French farmers sought when they planted their mesclun mix, according to Vincent Valverde, marketing director at TKO Farms Inc. in Sausalito, Calif., which processes many mesclun salad mixtures found in produce sections.

"The growers used to mix the seeds of different young lettuces, and just throw them in the fields," Mr. Valverde says. "That would be the first type of salad that they would be able to eat in the spring."

TKO Farms' growth indicates the increased popularity of salad mixtures, Mr. Valverde said. When the company started four yeas ago, it leased 10 acres to grow the organic greens. This year, the company grows nearly 1,000 acres of greens.

Versatility fuels that popularity, those in the food service industry say. "A lot of lettuces in these mixtures are strong and bitter," says chef Lori Finkelman, "so they can stand up to something stronger. They have pretty pronounced flavors, and they can withstand the weight of a heavier dressing."

"There's quite a few things you can do with different dressings," says Mr. La Barba. "My favorite is real light -- olive oil with balsamic vinegar, cracked mustard and honey."

Chef Kevin Garvin serves mesclun as his seasonal greens with warm peppered goat cheese.

"It also goes well with our house creamy vinaigrette, which is just an emulsion of olive oil, lemon juice,some Dijon mustard and couple of eggs," Mr. Garvin says.

He also offers a suggestion for preserving the greens: "I plunge all my greens after I clean them -- and you want to use a stainless steel knife or a pair of scissors -- into a big sink of ice water. I add just a little bit of lemon juice and a little bit of salt just to refresh the water. I let them soak in the ice water about an hour, then I rinse them and pack them in plastic containers that have been lined with some moist paper towels. Seal the containers and refrigerate them."

Mr. Garvin says the greens will remain fresh for two or three days.

Such staying power extends to mesclun's popularity, says Mr. La Barba. "I think it is going to be around for quite some time, because it's a fairly simple item for people to prepare.

"That's what it's all about, as much ease as possible."

Smoked turkey with mixed greens

Makes 4 servings

1/2 pound smoked deli turkey breast 1-inch thick

4 cups mixed greens, rinsed and torn into fork-size pieces

1/4 pound white Cheddar cheese, cut into 1/4 -inch slices

2 carrots, pared and sliced into coins

1 green pepper, cored and sliced into rings

1 red onion, thinly sliced

1/4 cup bottled Italian or Caesar salad dressing, or vinaigrette (3 parts oil to 1 part vinegar, whisked with salt and pepper)

Cut turkey breast into 1-inch cubes. Divide greens among 4 plates. Arrange turkey breast cubes, cheese, carrots, pepper rings and onion on the plates. Drizzle with dressing.

Per serving: calories: 303; fat: 18

grams; cholesterol: 66 milligrams; sodium: 332 milligrams; percent calories from fat: 54 percent.

Orange-almond salad with mixed greens

Makes 6 servings

4 cups mixed greens, rinsed and torn into fork-size pieces

1 (11-ounce) can mandarin orange segments

1/2 cup sliced almonds

1/3 cup bottled poppy seed dressing

Divide greens among 6 plates. Divide orange segments on top of lettuces on plates and sprinkle with almonds. Drizzle with dressing.

Per serving: calories: 179; fat: 14 grams; cholesterol: 0 milligrams; sodium: 110 milligrams; percent calories from fat: 67 percent.

Walnut-pear salad with mixed greens

Makes 6 servings

1/4 cup olive oil

3 tablespoons white wine vinegar

salt and pepper to taste

3 pears, washed, cored and cut into 1/2 -inch cubes

juice of 1 lemon

4 cups mixed greens, rinsed and torn into fork-size pieces

3/4 cup walnuts

1/2 cup crumbled blue cheese

In glass bowl, whisk together olive oil, vinegar and salt and pepper until well blended. Set vinaigrette aside. In a separate bowl, coat cubed pears with lemon juice. Divide greens among 6 plates. Drain and divide cubed pears, walnuts and blue cheese among the plates. Drizzle with vinaigrette.

Per serving: calories: 212; fat: 16 grams; cholesterol: 9 milligrams; sodium: 345 milligrams; percent calories from fat: 64 percent.

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