Mache, the fairytale lettuce 

by Ann McCulloh, contributing editor

Once, upon a time, there was a little plant that slept all summer, sprouted in the fall, and grew green and contented underneath the snow. Come the warm spring sun it flowered, scattered its seed freely and went to sleep until cool weather woke it up again. The lucky princess in whose garden it flourished, never had to plant it, or do much of anything but give it a bed of straw, and pick it for salads in the dark days of winter.

Mache (aka lamb’s lettuce, corn salad, Rapunzel, doucette, Nussler) is the most familiar name for Valeriana locusta, a delicate and delicious salad green that really does follow this topsy-turvy, through-the looking-glass schedule. I first planted the seed in springtime, in 2012, I think. It came up, promptly flowered

then went to seed, and I proceeded to forget all about it until the next September, when little green rosettes started poking through my straw mulch.

I kept an eye on it as it stayed green and grew a bit, while frosts became more prevalent. Then the first snow fell, and I assumed the worst. Sometime the next January I ventured out to the garden patch and noticed the green rosettes looked spritely. And larger. I pushed away some snow and clipped a few of them.

Mache (pronounced mahsh) has a delicate, nutty or even floral, flavor that invites dressing with walnut or hazelnut oil and sherry vinegar. It’s compatible with most anything. The French, who probably grow the most mache commercially, often dress it with hazelnut oil and vinegar, pair it with endive, frisee, thinly-sliced radishes or beets, and chop hardboiled egg or ham over it. The 4” spoon-shaped leaves have a spinach-like texture that holds onto just the right amount of vinaigrette.  I like it with orange segments, avocado slices, citrus dressing and a sprinkle of violets! Cooked briefly like spinach, it makes a decent omelet filling. Nice in a sandwich wrap, too!

Citrus Dressing for Winter/Spring Mache Salad:

1/3 cup fresh-squeezed orange juice

2 tablespoons balsamic or other good vinegar

1 Tablespoon olive, hazelnut or avocado oil

Salt and fresh ground pepper to taste

It’s surprising that self-sowing mache hasn’t caught on more widely with gardeners and gourmets in this country. For me, it is the closest thing to an effortless garden crop. But best of all, I can harvest tasty garden-fresh greens from January through April, and I haven’t bought a packet of seeds since that first purchase in 2012.

Mache

corn salad, lamb’s lettuce, Rapunzel salad (Valeriana locusta) Doucette, raiponce, Nussler

Europe, Africa, Western Asia

Specialty of Nantes

Vitamin C, B6, beta-carotene, iron, potassium, copper manganese

More iron than spinach

Delicate flavor, nutty or even floral, to me. Dress with walnut oil and sherry vinegar or a mustard dressing

Orange and avocado with orange dressing

Roasted beets and endive or frisee

Mix with other salad greens

Rosette of tender, spoonshaped leaves

Tiny whole plants, add a delicate crunch

Can be cooked like spinach and used to stuff omelets or pastry

Tea sandwich filling, with thinly sliced radishes

Lazy gardener alert

Germinates when soils are 55 to 68 degrees, sun, moist soil, mulch

Young plants sprout in September, remain green and succulent all winter under light straw mulch, really burgeon in March and April, start to bloom in May and seed themselves prolifically in June. Seed lies dormant until cooler fall weather. Then the cycle restarts.

One thought on “Mache, the fairytale lettuce 

  1. Mache has been a favorite for at least twenty five years here at the Rose garden. Mache and chervil are the easiest veggies I grow. Both made it into my Passover salads along with lovage, another easy one, with the added feature of a hollow flower stalk which doubles as a straw for bloody Mary’s, overwintered carrots and Jerusalem artichokes. I can say that as a lazy gardener there is nothing more gratifying than harvesting mache…this year in January and February. It is in full flower in my garden…charming and still edible.

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