In Spain, as in much of Europe, canónigos or mâche (also known as corn salad, nut lettuce, lamb's lettuce, Valerianella locusta, etc.) is a delicacy. It's quite unlike any other salad green. The leaves are meaty, yet melt-in-your-mouth tender and, at the same time, slightly crunchy. The flavor is mild and delicate, with a hint of raw nuts.
When Ana and I were in Granada last spring, we went to a nice restaurant called Taberna Salinas and had a salad of canónigos with fresh tuna, and we liked it so much that I made a point of planting some mâche as soon as the weather cooled here in Central Florida.
Canónigos are extremely easy to grow, which is good, because here in the U.S. they're difficult to find unless you're lucky enough to have a really good produce market in your neighborhood, and even then they're pricey.
A cool season veggie, it can take more cold than almost any other green. Floridata, one of my favorite gardening websites, says it's hardy to zone 5 and can be harvested from under a blanket of snow. Frost makes it taste sweeter.
I just scattered the seeds in pots and tubs of well-drained container mix, pressed the seeds down lightly with my palm, and kept the soil moist. Like wild arugula, this is one of those salad greens that is totally worth it, even if you have a busy schedule. There's really no excuse not to plant some. All you need is a sunny (or even somewhat shady) spot on the patio. You probably won't find seeds for mâche at local stores, but the better seed catalogs usually list several varieties, under various names, often "corn salad" or "lamb's lettuce."
We harvest the tiny heads right before the meal. We wash and dry them carefully. (See my post on Simple Spanish Salads for more information on how to wash and dry greens). I like to leave the rosettes whole because the stems add a nice crunch (they're very delicate, not at all stringy).
You can make all sorts of salads out of canónigos. Today I'll focus on one of the easiest: a simple green salad of canónigos with a flavorful vinaigrette. This recipe for vinaigrette is based on one given by Jacques Pepin in Julia and Jacques Cooking at Home.
For the dressing (makes about a half cup)
1 small clove of garlic, minced and mashed with a little salt
1 teaspoon of Dijon mustard
1/4 teaspoon of Kosher salt or sea salt
a dash of freshly ground black pepper
1-2 teaspoons of sherry vinegar
1/2 cup of virgin olive oil
whisk all of the ingredients in a bowl.
Carefully wash and dry as many canónigos as you want. Place them in a large salad bowl. Pour a little of the dressing over them and toss. Continue adding dressing and tossing until the leaves are just coated. Serve immediately.