Homegrown mustard greens add spice, color to salads


The spice we call mustard comes from a group of plants that are related to cabbage and cauliflower. Their dried seeds are crushed into a paste and then mixed with water, vinegar or other herbs to make a seasoning paste. The plant leaves may also be eaten fresh or added to cooked foods like stews. We enjoy them with salads around here, so this year, for the first time, we’ve grown mustard greens in our salad mix.

Mustard plants are classified by the color of the seeds they produce. Most of what becomes the spice used in the United Staes on hot dogs and sausages is brown mustard (Brassica juncea). The plant was originally native to areas in the Himalayas of northern India. Most of the commercial crop is grown on the plains in Hungary, the United States and Canada, which is the world’s leading grower. The U.S. uses most of the world’s brown mustard.

Black mustard (Brassica nigra) is native to North Africa and the areas around the Mediterranean Sea, east into Asia. This is the original mustard used by the Romans and later the Europeans. Today, black mustard, or rai, is primarily used in Indian cooking where whole seeds are sauteed until they pop and release their flavor.

I believe the mustard plants in my salad mix were ‘Ruby Streaks’ and ‘Golden Frills.’ Both of their leaves added a peppery note as well as color to our summer salads.

After several harvests from my original pot, most of the lettuce in the mix started to bolt to seed, so I filled a new container with seeds and kind of forgot about the original plants. By late July, I noticed some tall flower stalks topped with simple yellow flowers towering over the now insect-eaten, tattered leaves struggling in the original pot. Now those flowers have produced a crop of seed pods. I’m bringing them into the house as they dry and sorting out their bounty of tiny seeds.

White mustard (Synapis hirta) is related to culinary mustards but used primarily as a commercial cover crop because it is late to flower and set seed. This limits the mustard self-sowing in the fields the following year and becoming a weed. Compounds in white mustard inhibit the development of beet cyst nematodes, so it’s valued as a cover crop where sugar beets are grown commercially.

Mustard seeds contain between 40% and 60% vegetable oil. It’s a popular cooking oil in areas of Pakistan and western India, although only mustard oil with low levels of erucic acid may be imported into the U.S. (High levels of the acid may cause heart issues.)

The flavor compounds in mustard are released by a chemical reaction that uses water. To produce its characteristic flavor, mustard seed must always be combined with something that contains water, even if that’s only in saliva in the taster’s mouth.

Mustard is a cool weather crop, so this week I’m probably going to sow some of the seeds I’m gathering. The leaves are ready for harvest about a month after the plants sprout and they tolerate a light frost. Unfortunately, cabbage moth and flea beetle larvae also love mustard leaves, so I’ll put row cover over the pot. The spice flavor of the leaves in salad make the extra step worth the effort.


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