In restaurants and home kitchens alike, it used to be that salad greens meant lettuce—red leaf, green leaf, Bibb, romaine, and so forth. But all that started to change about fifteen years ago when chefs and gourmet travellers began to acquire an appetite for the delicious and vibrant mesclun salads of the Provence region of France.
The word mesclun comes from the Latin word mesclumo, which means mixture. Traditional mesclun (also called misticanza in some regions of Italy) is foraged from the wild and includes tender shoots, leaves, and flowers of edible plants and herbs that grow on the sunny hillsides in the Mediterranean climate. The hallmark of mesclun is a balance of colors, textures, and flavors that range from sweet and tender to bitter and crisp to peppery and pungent.
Today, markets in places like New York City sell close to 10,000 pounds of mesclun every week, so growers and chefs have obviously had to come up with sources other than the wild plants foraged from nearby hillsides. The mesclun we find in markets is cultivated from seed and grown both indoors and out. It ranges from spirited and delicious to bland and uninteresting.
Supermarket mesclun, which tends to be rather ordinary in both taste and complexity, is most often a mix of ten to twelve varieties, including red oak leaf lettuce, red and green romaine, radicchio, curly endive, frisée, lollo rosso (frilly leaf lettuce with red edges), baby spinach, sometimes baby chard leaves or mustard greens, as well as a bit of tat soi (the small thumb-shaped flavorful Asian green) and sometimes arugula. The best mixes are composed of only baby leaves. If you see a lot of cut-up bits (full-size radicchio is often chopped and added), you’ll know that the mix was made from larger, tougher plants.
Fortunately, many greenmarkets and gourmet stores now sell wonderful and distinctive mesclun grown by individual producers in smaller quantities. Some of these mixes contain as many as thirty different plants, including flowers and herbs (which are very delicate and spoil too rapidly for supermarkets) and things like young dandelion greens, purslane, mizuna, and curly cress, to name a few. While these mixes can be pricey (upwards of $15 per pound), they need nothing more than the simplest dressing of extra-virgin olive oil and a bit of lemon juice or vinegar to make a tremendous salad.
You can also grow your own mesclun: many seed companies now sell mixed seed packs containing all the varieties you need for your own little salad patch. Just remember to plan your growing season around the cooler months of late spring and early fall; many greens turn overly bitter in the heat of high summer