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Gardening: Discovering a New Vegetable

The benefits of Mache are numerous, and you can find it on the shelf at Trader Joe's.

Relatively new to the U.S. produce markets but consumed around the world for thousands of years, mache is a wild lettuce with small delicate, rounded leaves that grow in a rosette shape. Or you might see it labeled in the specialty produce section as lamb's lettuce or lamb's tongue. Because mache can be found in corn fields, it is also referred to as corn salad, field salad, or field lettuce. Its Latin name is Valerianella locusta.

Mache can be used raw in salads or cooked. It is particularly popular in France.  It is most likely to thrive outdoors in the US from September to April. This makes it a "cool season" vegetable which is clearly not a season we are currently in.

When it disappeared from Trader Joe's shelves this winter, I ordered seeds from Baker Creek Heirloom Seed Co., but I did not get around to planting them. Now it is too warm for it to thrive in my community garden plot even though the seeds are in a salad trough that I can move in and out of the shade. Fortunately it's back on the store shelves.

Mache has a mild, sweet, slightly nutty but fresh flavor. Mixed with other greens it can help tone down their flavor. I really like its taste and texture. It is not boring like iceberg lettuce and has more interest than romaine plus lots of valuable nutrients for its diminutive size.

Mache is a good natural source of important omega 3s fatty acids, a healthy fat. The omega-3s in mache help lower triglycerides and improve HDL (good) cholesterol levels, which reduce inflammation, and help reduce the risk of cancer and heart disease.  Due to its vitamin B9 (folic acid) content it reportedly has anti-fatigue, anti-stress and anti-depressive properties. Who can't use a little help with stress relief?

One hundred grams of mache contains almost half the recommended daily amount of vitamin B9. It also contains a third more iron than spinach. In addition to other nutrients, it has half one's daily requirements for vitamin C and 120 percent of vitamin A with only 30 calories.

For a quick nutritious lunch when it is too hot to turn on the stove:

  • Make a bed of washed mache
  • Add a scoop of calamari, chicken or tuna salad
  • Add something for crunch, like chopped beet green stems, pistachios or walnuts
  • Top with a small amount of vinaigrette or other delicate salad dressing. (Don't over power your greens with condiments.)

Since you can cook the leaves as well as eat them raw, you might have more success convincing finicky eaters to try it rather than the stronger taste of spinach. Or use it in soups, pastas and stuffings. Due to its shape it seems to work better as sandwich garnish than regular lettuce because chunks don't fall out but rather stay in place.

I find that mache lasts considerably longer in the refrigerator than mesclun or other loose leafed lettuce mixes.

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