My summer always starts well before the official calendar date — and this year I was feeling the heat at the beginning of May. So by the first week in June, I was well into summer mode and my daily menus were being built around cold dishes — and preferably those that involved as little pre-cooking as possible.
This is the time of year when I leave the Bulletin office in the Paseo Mallorca and head for El Corte Inglés in Avda Jaime III. I go down to the supermarket and straight to the aisle with the yoghurts and cream cheeses.
I then spend up to 10 minutes looking at Italian mozzarellas, French camembert and brie and other dairy products. But I’m not there to buy anything, although I occasionally get their German butter, a good one at €1.77 for a 250grs pack.
No, I’m there because that aisle is the coolest spot in central Palma: there are yoghurts along one side and cream cheeses on the other side. The temperature in between is actually too cold for most people, but I luxuriate in it for 6-10 minutes. My next stop is the vegetables department.
Both supermarkets of El Corte Inglés have splendiferous fruit and veg sections, with mounds of quality produce. Some of the fruit prices are too high for me, so I buy only those that come within my budget. These days I have been buying juicy nectarines at €1.69 a kilo, which is actually a little cheaper than at most fruit shops I know.
A really good buy in the veggie section is their cogollo lettuces at only €1 for a pack of three: one of the best bargains in town. Last week they had boxes of rocket at the incredible promotional price of 99 centimos: I bought two and was having rocket with everything. And very nice it was.
Both supermarkets also have the finest selection of potato varieties I have come across. Most of us associate potatoes with winter dishes, but they are also a great summer stand-by ingredient. There are dozens of ways of using them in salads, including on their own with nothing but a vinaigrette dressing of your choice.
During the past month I have also rediscovered lamb’s lettuce, called ‘canónigos’ in Spanish. I had forgotten how versatile it is as a salad green, either on its tod or mixed with other greens. And if you are fond of watercress, most English of salad greens, but can’t find it anywhere on the island, you’ll find that lamb’s lettuce is an ideal substitute, both in salads and in cooked dishes.
For most Europeans, except the French, lamb’s lettuce was unknown until the early 1990s. The first time I saw the word ‘canónigo’ was in a Spanish food magazine in the autumn of 1993. This word means lamb’s lettuce but at that time most Spanish-English dictionaries gave only the ecclesiastical meaning of the word, which is canon.
A couple of months later the restaurant of La Residencia in Deyá was advertising a Christmas menu with a dish that was served on a bed of ‘canónigos’. When I asked a few Spanish friends if they had heard of ‘canónigos’, I got nothing but blank looks. British friends had never heard of lamb’s lettuce.
It seemed as if lamb’s lettuce was some kind of new salad green, but it has a very long pedigree and people have been praising it for centuries. Even so, it was one of those foods that got left by the wayside in most countries when it fell out of favour with cooks and housewives.
The French, however, never gave up on lamb’s lettuce, which they know as mâche. In the 1980s I came cross many recipes for mâche in French food magazines, so I knew it was called lamb’s lettuce in English and that Americans knew it as corn salad. But I didn’t get to taste it until the early 1990s.
The plant was taken to the United States early in the 19th century and it soon became a weed in the cornfields. But it was a weed housewives used in salads — thus the American name of corn salad.
This plant, a variety of valeriana that used to grow wild in Europe, North Africa and Asia Minor, is now cultivated in the United States and Europe with France producing more than any other country. Some 90 per cent of the French crop is grown in the Nantes area, not far from the Loire and its châteaux. The soil there is gravelly which is ideal for the cultivation of lamb’s lettuce.
Cultivation has improved this plant, which used to be very bitter. Some varieties are still more bitter than sweet, but most people prefer the sweetish variety with a slightly bitter aftertaste.
Lamb’s lettuce is sown in the summer and harvested in the winter, so in past centuries it was one of those plants that provided winter greens when summer veggies were no longer available.
But that was before modern cultivation methods gave us many varieties of fruit and vegetables all year round. Even so, lamb’s lettuce is at its best between January and March. The round leaf variety the French call ‘coquille’, a word that means shell as well as the blister on the crust of a loaf, is the one we are most likely to come across at the supermarket. Most of the lamb’s lettuce sold in Majorca is grown in the Barcelona area.
Most countries that cultivate lamb’s lettuce use gravelly soil similar to that in Nantes. That means the bunches of lamb’s lettuce you sometimes see at the municipal markets have sandy roots that have to be cut off. The leaves must be well washed to rid them of any grains of sand.
Once the sand has been washed off under running water, the leaves should be given a good rinse in slightly acidulated water to help maintain their bright green colour. Lemon juice is better than vinegar for acidulating the water.
The leaves of lamb’s lettuce are extremely delicate and they will wilt immediately if they come into contact with neat vinegar or lemon juice. For a salad, or even a small garnish, the leaves must be well turned in olive oil so that each leaf has a protective coating. Then, when lemon juice or vinegar is added, it will slide off the leaves without damaging them.
But even with that protective coating of oil, a salad containing lamb’s lettuce must not lie around waiting to be eaten. To enjoy it at its best, you must dress the salad just before serving it.
Lamb’s lettuce is very good when combined with plain cooked beetroot, although the French now consider that pairing to be a bit of a cliché. The addition of finely chopped shallots to this salad also works nicely. But it’s a plant that lends itself to endless invention and improvisation, especially when its dark green hue is used to provide a contrast of colours.
Try it with shredded carrots, shavings of hard cheese such as parmesan, manchego or a cured mahón. Like spinach, it combines nicely with walnut and blue cheese, slices of smoked salmon, cured ham or snippets of crisp bacon. Lamb’s lettuce can be used in just about any recipe that calls for spinach.
Trendy cooks have for some years been making up a wide variety of false dishes with popular names. You will see lasagne or cannelloni that have nothing to do with these two Italian specialities. Sometimes pasta isn’t even involved, the cannelloni being tube of thinly sliced mango with a stuffing, or something else just as surrealistic.
Some restaurant cooks many years ago got over the problem of the short basil season by making pesto according to the classic recipe but with parsley instead of basil. It’s actually a good sauce for pasta, but it should never be called pesto.
Creative cooks more recently have been making use of other plants that are readily available. I’ve seen pesto made with rocket, watercress and lamb’s lettuce. These sauces lack the characteristic flavour of basil but I find them quite acceptable — as long as I’m not expected to think of them as being pesto.
So when you want a vivid green sauce for pasta use your favourite pesto recipe with any of the dark green plants that take your fancy, but be honest with yourself, your friends and basil — and refrain from calling it pesto.
You should never get into a rut with salad greens because there are more than a dozen at municipal markets and supermarkets all over the island. Here is a brief guide in case you are unfamiliar with some of the names.
ROMANA: This is the romaine or cos, the most ubiquitous of lettuces. Its long leaves are deepish green on the outside an yellowish on the inside. Some of the outer leaves are bitterish and have to be discarded.
FRANCESA: The French or trocadero has very delicate leaves that must be washed and dried with extreme care. The leaves are so smooth and tender that this lettuce is sometimes known as ‘butter head’. You must never dress it until you are ready to serve it. And go easy on the vinegar. Or, better still, use only virgen extra olive oil.
ICEBERG: At their darkest, the outer leaves are only light green and the inner ones almost white. Very crisp and meaty, but too full of water for my taste. The blanched leaves make a good recipient for stuffings.
HOJA DE ROBLE: The leaves are so delicate the whole lettuce must be eaten on the day you buy it. Its crimped leaves, which look like those of the oak tree, have an attractive colour with a good flavour which also reminds you of walnuts. Another of those lettuces that are all the better if they never see a drop of vinegar.
LOLLO-ROSSO: Trendy cooks like its colours and also its slightly bitter taste — which is also reminiscent of walnuts. The leaves are extremely delicate and they must be very fresh.
COGOLLOS: A Spanish speciality and the best ones come from Tudela in Navarra. Called baby gem in England, they are sold in trays of two or three. They cost €1 for three at El Corte Inglés, a real bargain.
RADICCHIO: The most colourful of the lettuce family and so strikingly handsome it could only be Italian. Its bitter flavour and bright colour make it ideal for mixing with other salad greens. It is usually harvested with a bit of root attached so its leaves and heart will remain crisp for longer.
ESCAROLA: The curly leaf lettuce known as endive or chicory, depending on which side of the Atlantic you live. Its dark green to light yellow leaves have a superb bitter taste. Used in Majorca to accompany roast suckling pig and often served on its own with an oil and vinegar dressing.
COL CHINA: Chinese cabbage which many of us use in stir-fried dishes. Others, especially vegetarians, use it for salads. Cultivated in China as long ago as the 5th century, it didn’t reach Europe until 1845. But it didn’t become popular until the Israelis started to grow and export it in the 1960s. It has slightly crinkly pale green leaves with thick white central ribs. The inner tender leaves are best for salads.
RÚCULA: This is the magnificent rocket, also known by its Italian name, rucola. Its piquant taste is redolent of the best varieties of watercress. Add it to any mixed salad, or have it on its own as a garnish for roast or grilled meats. Its finely minced leaves can be mixed with butter to use as a sauce with long pasta. It is also excellent with boiled new potatoes. For best results, dress it with nothing but virgen extra olive oil — or, even better, walnut oil.