Mesclun and Some Salad Basics

Thursday, June 24, 2010

You've seen it at the grocery store and it's been served to you at restaurants. Previously considered a "gourmet" salad, mesclun has managed to take its place (rightfully) on the shelves of local grocery stores and farmers markets as an every day lettuce. It's colorful, tasty, and...what the hell are we supposed to do with it?

Mesclun is a French reference for a combination of young lettuce. Traditionally the mixture includes baby leafy lettuces, chervil, argulala, and endive. However, modern mixtures often include spinach, kale, frisee, radicchio, and others. The general "point" of this mixture is to pic leafy greens at their most tender - when they just come out of the ground. Also, the flavors of the more bitter lettuces (radicchio, frisee for example) haven't developed their characteristic pungent taste yet, so many people find this mixture quite agreeable to their palate.

Because the leafs are so tender, a heavy cream-based dressing is not recommended when working with this salad. If you've noticed, when you have this salad at a restaurant it's often served with a simple vinaigrette. Oil, vinegar and perhaps a touch of sweetness from honey or a jam are all you need to dress these greens.

Given the different flavors of the mixture ranging from the bitter frisee to the sweet butter lettuce, many accoutrements compliment the leafs for a composed salad. A classic combination of nut-fruit-cheese is the pecan, dried cranberry, and bleu cheese.

When doing a composed salad (meaning - there's other "stuff" besides leafs and lettuce) you want to aim for both balance of flavors as well as textures. By adding crunchy nuts, chewy cranberries and creamy bleus you're adding 3 more dimensions to the whole salad. And now you're in Gourmet Territory.

I have two rules:

For a great vinaigrette, I use Oil-Acid-Sweet. This means I pick an oil (usually a good extra virgin olive oil, but I also love hazelnut oil or grapeseed), add a splash of some kind of acid (meaning lemon, lime or fresh orange juice, a good aged balsamic vinegar or white vinegar, apple cider vinegar, champagne vinegar...whatever), and for something sweet I love doing honey or a 1/2 tsp - 1 tsp of jam. This is one of my secrets. There are so many fabulous jams out there from fig to mixed berry, spicy mango chutney to jalapeno jelly! All of them act like natural emulsifiers in making a fabulous vinaigrette with a hint of sweetness. I've found also that the sweetness balances out the tart acidity of a citrus or vinegar very nicely, giving an overall balanced flavor that's both complimentary and complex.

The options are literally endless, so play around with what you've got in your pantry for a new vinaigrette dressing!

The second rule is Nut-Fruit-Cheese. Again, options are endless. Nuts offer a healthy crunch that's a nice compliment to the overall salad. Fruits can be dried or fresh and literally anything that's in season or that you have on hand. And cheese is same thing - anything from creamy Roquefort to aged cheddar. You can put in whatever combination you like!

That's all you need for a fabulous salad!

To use the ingredients picture above, try this classic recipe for:

Mesclun with Balsamic Vinaigrette, Pecans, Cranberry and Bleu Cheese
1 bag organic mesclun blend
1/4 cup dried canberries
2 Tbsp chopped pecans, toasted*
2-3 Tbsp good quality bleu cheese (recommend Roquefort, Point Reyes, or English Stilton)
1/4 cup good quality extra virgin olive oil
3 Tbsp aged balsamic vinegar from Modena
1 heaping Tbsp honey
kosher salt
freshly ground black pepper

Wash and dry the salad greens. Set aside.

Make the vinaigrette. Whisk together the vinegar and honey until combined. Slowly drizzle in the olive oil while still whisking - this is called "emulsifying" the oil. You want to keep whisking rather vigorously until the vinegar, honey and oil have combined into a creamy dressing and the oil is not separating from the vinegar. Season with salt and pepper to taste and drizzle over the greens using a spoon. Very gently toss the salad in the vinaigrette using tongs or a large fork and spoon, making sure not to bruise the tender leaves. Add the cranberries, pecans and cheese and give another light toss.

Serve immediately.

*To toast the pecans, place them in a shallow pan over low heat (not butter or oil is needed). Heat through stirring constantly until very lightly toasted and become fragrant. Remove promptly and set aside or serve (if you leave them in the pan even after turning the heat off, they will burn).

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