Edible Seasonals: Mustard Greens

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Brighter, Bitter, Better

mustard-greens By Ellen Jackson
Photo by Jennifer Murdock

Professionally trained chefs pride themselves on having highly developed palates and olfactory organs, which is different than saying those body parts are overly sensitive. About 25 percent of people are “supertasters,” or individuals whose tongues house more—and more sensitive—taste receptors. The distinction sounds impressive, but “supertaster” does not equal “superpower.” It doesn’t come with a flashy outfit or a heightened sense of justice. It isn’t even something to brag about. Supertasters don’t like bitter.

I, on the other hand, seem to have been issued a healthy set of bitter taste genes. Among my favorite foods are grapefruit, black coffee (dark, oily beans), marmalade, licorice, rapini, chicory and endive, and the hoppiest IPAs. Their bracing bitterness is the charm of these foods, and there is one of which I am particularly enamored: mustard greens.

Brassica juncea, or Chinese mustard greens as they’re commonly known, come in bunches of red-veined leaves with deep purple stems or floppy green leaves with ruffled edges. Both varieties belong to the plant family em>brassicaceae, or cruciferae if you prefer the older name, which refers to the cross-shaped flowers of its members.

Bold and mild-flavored brassicas alike are edible from root to flower and thrive when the temperature dips. In mellow family members like kale, collards and cauliflower, cold weather encourages sweetness. Piquant cousins, including mustards, radishes and watercress, which are particularly easy to grow, similarly improve in flavor by becoming more aggressive, more complex. More bitter.

Not only is bitter better, it’s better for you. The same compounds that make certain foods taste bitter (caffeine, carotenoids, flavonoids, polyphenols) make them good for us. It’s well worth acquiring a taste for mustard’s pungent, peppery qualities since it is nutritionally powerful, providing massive doses of vitamins A, C and K, plus vitamin E, calcium, fiber, manganese, antioxidants and phytonutrients. All that, and it’s a detoxifying agent extraordinaire, too.

The Indian Himalayas are mustard’s original home. From there, their popularity in both field and kitchen spread to India, Russia and China, and then Japan and Korea, where the leaves are most frequently used. Their peppery flavor, delivered in a pungent blast reminiscent of wasabi, is also common in African and Italian kitchens. Of the multiple varieties of Chinese mustard grown, some form heads, while others grow as loose leaves. Either way, choose crisp, fresh looking greens that are unblemished and free from yellowing or brown spots. Stored in a bag in the refrigerator, they will stay fresh for three to four days. They’re at their best and are most readily available from December to April, when they’re plentiful at farmers’ markets and grocery stores that carry local produce.

We’re all born with an aversion to bitterness, predisposed to be suspicious of acerbic-tasting plants since there was once an evolutionary advantage to avoiding them. (Many toxins are bitter.) Maybe supertasters have a superior instinct for survival. Me? I’m happy with the taste receptors I’ve been dealt and the fact that my continued existence will taste better, brighter and more bitter. Time to stock up on mustard greens.

Quick & Easy Mustard Greens

Stewed long and slow, mustard greens become the stuff of dreams when they share a pot and several hours with a ham hock or a slab of salt pork. They’re delicious sautéed in roast chicken drippings, served with barbecue, alongside a fatty pork roast or cooked with bacon.

And yet mustard greens aren’t so tough that a quick, light sauté in peanut oil doesn’t prepare them perfectly for a liberal sprinkling of coarsely chopped, salted peanuts. Chiles, coconut milk, ginger, sesame, soy and creamy Greek yogurt make other happy companions, balancing the pungent greens with sweet, salt, spice and/or fat.

Crisped in a slow oven that dials back their spicy kick, mustard green chips are a serious contender for the limelight that kale chips have enjoyed long enough. See recipe here.

To my mind, soul food, Cajun and Creole are some of the best mustard green preparations: long-simmered in broth, with ham hocks and onions, liberally doused in vinegar and served with cornbread. Or in Gumbo z’Herbes, a meatless version of gumbo traditionally served in Louisiana on Good Friday. The green gumbo gets its name from the eight or more varieties of bitter greens that go into it.

The young, tender leaves of the plant are among the best additions to salad I know. A ratio of 1/3 baby mustard leaves to 2/3 milder baby greens and spinach is just assertive enough to handle creamy buttermilk dressing. When they get larger, the leaves can be lightly massaged with olive oil, lemon juice and a small clove of finely minced garlic, then tossed with shavings of Parmesan cheese.

Ellen Jackson is a Portland-based writer, cookbook author and food stylist.


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