Mâche is the star salad green of this January’s kitchen garden. Its dark green rosettes, rising only a few inches above the mulched rows, still look lush and vigorous after the freezing temperatures, snows, rains and winds that have left kale, arugula and mustard looking pretty ragged. These other hardy greens will send out tasty new growth in the weeks ahead, but until they do I’m grateful for mâche and its nutty flavor, succulent texture and rich green color. Alone as a simple salad or tossed with roasted vegetables, raw julienned celery root, apples, nuts or goat cheese, it’s my favorite winter salad green.
The botanical name for this lovely green is Valerianella locusta and it goes by many common names besides mâche; corn salad, field salad, lamb’s lettuce are a few. Steve Solomon (Growing Vegetables West of the Cascades, 2007, page 206) explains that the name corn salad comes from mâche’s origin as a foraged wild green that “came up in the stubble of harvested grain fields” in Europe where “small grains like wheat, barley and oats are called corn.” I like this bit of plant history behind the name corn salad but I’m staying with the French name mâche partly because the French were the first to cultivate this green in the 18th century but more to head off any expectation that my salads will contain kernels.
Like the original wild variety, today’s named cultivars of mâche also reseed and many gardeners leave a few plants to flower and produce seeds and plants for the next season. In Winter Gardening in the Maritime Northwest (3rd edition, 1989) Binda Colebrook writes, “I have clumps of it established in my herb beds and just let it go to seed on its own. In the summer I weed once or twice, and later in the summer, as the soil cools down, the seedlings emerge where they will. It’s very handy not having to worry about sowing it!”
Because I like to make succession plantings, I sow mâche each year from mid-August through September, not quite so handy as letting plants self-seed but a good way to establish an extended supply of mâche. My favorite variety is Vit but I also like Verte de Cambrai, another small-leaved variety. I’ve also tried some of the larger leaved varieties like Medallion and Large-Leaf Round but I still prefer the color and flavor of Vit. The seeds germinate best in cool soil so I often start the early sowings in flats in a cool spot and then set out inch-tall seedlings four inches apart in rows twelve inches apart. I sometimes direct seed the last sowings when the weather is cool enough to encourage germination. With either method, I always mulch around the new seedlings to keep rain from splashing dirt up into this low-growing plant. Mâche grows slowly at first but by mid-October there are plenty of greens for salads from the first plantings and the later plantings provide salads until April. Even when the last plants start to bolt in the lengthening days of spring, the greens, stems and even the blossoms remain tasty.
When I harvest mâche I cut the entire head, slipping a knife under the rosette and cutting at the root. I could cut the head above the root and encourage a second growth but I find that these new growth leaves are smaller and harder to harvest and clean. Also, it’s easier to carry the whole head to the kitchen and wash it there than to try to get my hands around a pile of loose leaves in the garden. After rinsing each head of mâche, I grasp the rosette root side up in one hand and with the other hand slice across the plant about an inch or so above the root stem. The now separated leaves wash and dry easily in a salad spinner. I use it right away in a salad or pack it loosely in a plastic bag and refrigerate it. One more amazing thing about mâche is that it holds in the fridge for a week or more and still keeps its flavor.
For several nights in a row while hosting holiday guests, we added handfuls of mâche to room temperature chunks of roasted rutabaga, turnip, carrots and parsnips and dressed the mix with sherry vinaigrette for easy and very satisfying salads. Bits of roasted Delicata squash and pecans are great additions too. For Christmas Eve, I tossed mâche with toasted pecans, crumbled goat cheese and sherry vinaigrette, an elegant and delicious salad. And just the other night I added mâche to another favorite winter salad: celery root, apples and toasted nuts in a white vinegar, mustard and shallot dressing. Parsley would have worked just as well with this salad but mâche was even better. And then there was the lovely persimmon and mâche salad we had a month ago. The pairing possibilities for this tasty green are endless. And luckily there is more mâche growing in the kitchen garden to get us through whatever weather the rest of winter brings us.