Fresh & Local
Locavores, Summer Salads and Mescluns
Column #32, Published April 27th, 2012
There is currently a food revolution going on. Locally grown food is making permanent inroads into the food we eat, and the way we think about food.
As I mentioned in a previous column, a “locavore” is “a person interested in eating food that is locally produced, and not moved long distances to market.”
When most people hear the word “salad,” they usually immediately think of lettuce. Lettuce is bland, having very little flavor of its own. Most of us are accustomed to salads where the principle flavors come from the dressing and not the salad vegetables themselves. It is what most people are used to.
Locavores have a problem with salads and summer. Lettuce and spinach are both cool season vegetables that don’t tolerate hot summer temperatures. When June rolls around and the temperatures soar, lettuce and spinach will bolt. They enter their end-of-life cycle which begins by producing a flower stalk. The leaves then turn bitter, the flowers produce seed and the plants eventually die.
So, what is a locavore supposed to do during July and August? Give up salads? Give up being a locavore and buy supermarket lettuce from huge mega-farms thousands of miles away?
There are other possibilities, and as a group they are commonly called “mescluns.” The word “mesclun” originally came from a French word that literally means “mixture.” Wikipedia defines “mesclun” as “a salad mix of assorted small, young salad leaves which originated in Provence, France. The traditional mix includes chervil, arugula, leafy lettuces and endive in equal proportions, but in modern iterations may include an undetermined mix of fresh and available lettuces, spinach, arugula, Swiss chard, mustard greens, endive, dandelion, frisée, mizuna, mâche, radicchio, sorrel, and/or other leaf vegetables.”
The word “mesclun” has continued to evolve to the point that today many people now use the word to mean “salad greens other than lettuce and spinach.” There is a whole new world of mesclun greens out there that most people have never heard of, and many of these mesclun greens are much more heat-tolerant and locally available for most of the summer.
So, why are mesclun greens largely unknown? It goes back to my original point: most people are used to bland salads, and the mesclun greens have flavors. The flavors range from mild to – in the case of arugula – very pungent and spicy.
What are some of these mysterious mesclun greens?
There is a family of vegetables known as the Brassica family that includes common vegetables such as cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, radishes and turnips. There is a branch of this family known as the Asian Brassicas that includes greens such as tatsoi (my favorite vegetable), mizuna, Tokyo bekana and bok choy (or pac choi). These are all related to cabbage and broccoli.
Bok choy (or pac choi) is also known as Chinese cabbage. It is often grown in heads, but like leaf lettuce, it can be grown and picked as loose leaves.
There is another branch of the Brassica family known as mustard greens, and as the name implies, they all have a mustard flavor.
As I mentioned earlier, the mesclun green with the strongest flavor is undoubtedly arugula. There are actually two types of arugula: salad and wild. The wild arugula has a much stronger and hotter flavor.
I have not even scratched the surface: endive, beet greens, kale, Swiss chard, broccoli raab. The point is that locavores do have salad options in summer. Lettuce is pretty dull anyway. It might be a good time to try something new.
Bryant Osborn and his wife Terry own Corvallis Farms in Culpeper County. His column on fresh and locally grown food runs every Friday. He can be reached at email@example.com