Mâche (a.k.a. lamb’s lettuce)

Whenever I eat mâche – a.k.a. lamb’s lettuce – I think of Paris.

I say that and you may imagine that I am transported to a magical romantic weekend or a particularly delicious salad at a chic bistro.

While I have had romantic times in Paris and plenty of delicious salads in the City of Lights, mâche tends to remind me of a less glamorous time I spent there.

I used to spend a lot of time in Paris. I went at least once if not twice a year for stints that rarely lasted less than six weeks and I lived there for several longer stretches as well. One of these visits was in the summer of 1995. I was there on a research grant. Rather than staying in one of the shoebox garrets I was used to living in when in Paris, I had been invited to stay in the apartment of my first cousin once-removed family friends’ place in the 8th arrondissement while they were in Sun Valley for the summer.

Parisians who spend the summer – not just August, but the entire summer school holiday – in Sun Valley, Idaho are not the norm. And neither was their apartment. It had its own elevator from the courtyard.

I stayed in what was usually the nanny’s room in the children’s wing/half-floor. The only time I spent in the never-ending art-filled living room was when I walked through it get to the kitchen, which was on the other end of the palatial abode and included a generous eating area. I relegated myself to my bedroom and the “playroom” in the children’s wing that had a T.V. in it and a table I’d turned into a desk. The giant, empty, luxurious apartment was a budgetary god-send to a graduate student on a research stipend but it was also a depressing place to live alone.

I would wake up early, go through the empty apartment to the kitchen to make coffee and toast the bread left from the day before into tartines for breakfast, walk through the empty neighborhood (the 8th arrondissement is where you will find the Arc de Triomphe and the Champs-Elysées – the residential areas are fancy and my kind hosts were not the only ones out of town for the summer infestation of tourists) to the metro, have my bag checked by police (it was the summer of several terrorist bombings in the métro), answer their curious questions about the laptop in my bag, take the 1 to the Palais Royal/Musée du Louvre station, walk through the Palais Royal, and get to the Bibliothèque Nationale before all the seats were claimed to begin a day of historical research. Nine to five was spent with the books and other groupings of printed matter. I would then either go out with friends or head home – the heat and resulting aroma from that summer’s incessant blistering heat wave assaulting me along the way.

That’s right. It was a summer of terrorist bombings and a heat wave.

On the days I headed home I ate the same heat-friendly dinner more times than I care to remember: some bread, a hunk of cheese, and a giant bowl of mâche tossed with a bit of classic French vinaigrette – one part vinegar, three parts oil, a bit of mustard to bind them, and salt and pepper to taste. If I wasn’t feeling beyond lazy I’d add some minced garlic or shallot. I’d eat this in the kitchen while reading or, just as often often, up in the playroom while watching T.V. stripped down to my underwear with a fan aimed at my face, trying not to die of heat stroke and dreaming of the damp gray of a foggy San Francisco summer.

Mâche used to be something I only had when in France – I never saw it in the U.S. lo those many years ago. I found the beautiful mâche pictured above at the market last week and made a quick dressing that was the best dressing on mâche I’ve ever had. My dashing husband claimed it was perhaps the best dressing I’d ever made full-stop.

I was happy to have made such a tasty dressing, but feel wrong taking much credit for it. Regular readers know I don’t spend much time talking about products here, but the dressing on this mâche was so delicious because of some Lucero lemon crushed olive oil and Katz late harvest sauvignon blanc agrodulce vinegar – both of which were samples sent to me for a story I’m working on. I threw them together in classic vinaigrette proportions (3 parts oil to 1 part vinegar) with salt to taste. I didn’t add anything else. No pungent binding mustard, no bitter astrigent pepper.

The other key to the salad was, of course, the mâche. Fresh, tiny, tender leaves. I know you can sometimes buy mâche in the plastic bags so much salad comes in these days. If you buy it that way, make sure to wash it first – no matter how “pre-washed” it may be for these reasons.