This small salad leaf is also known as (here we go): lamb’s lettuce, lamb’s tongue, field lettuce, mâche, rapunzel and nussli or nut lettuce. So many names for such a little leaf! It was traditionally a foraged green and first became cultivated in France by Louis IV’s gardener. It grows wild in many parts of Europe and North America and gained the name corn salad because it often shoots up in between rows of corn. Like other foraged greens, it retains more nutritional character than the usual salad suspects, including good levels of vitamins A and C and Omega-3s.
You’ll struggle to find the leaves for sale here, though you might strike it lucky at some farmers’ markets – look for it in bunches with the roots still attached. Not to worry – corn salad is simple to grow, and thrives in cold climates, making it an excellent green to grow yourself and introduce a bit of personality to your salads during winter. The plants will self-sow, so leave them to go to seed if you wish and wait for the next crop, or keep sowing throughout the year for a continual supply – though in warm conditions corn salad will bolt to seed. Seeds can be bought from garden centres such as King’s, or online from the Koanga Institute.
Eaten raw, the young leaves have a mild, buttery and nutty flavour, and a melt-in-the-mouth velvety tenderness. In Europe, corn salad is traditionally partnered with hard-boiled eggs in a simple salad – the idea being to keep all the flavours mild so that the delicacy of the leaf can be appreciated. Don’t overpower corn salad with strong vinaigrettes – a little lemon juice, olive oil and flaky sea salt is the best dressing for it, or add a dash of cream if you’re after something richer. Walnut and hazelnut oils work well with corn salad, accentuating its nuttiness. It’s also fantastic alongside the sweetness of crayfish, scallops, prosciutto or good smoked bacon.
Pluck corn salad from the ground by the roots and rinse under gently running water, removing the roots afterwards and patting the leaves dry on paper towels. The leaves will keep for just a few days in the vegetable crisper, stored in a perforated plastic bag.
Pictured: A corn salad plant in my garden, surrounded by crushed egg shells, which helps deter slugs and snails!
(As published in Taste magazine, September 2011.)