Mustard green (and purple) is the color of one spicy mouthful

Posted: April 15, 2010

I have fallen deeply in love with mustard greens. Spicy Japanese mustard greens.

It didn't happen overnight. At first, the attraction was superficial and pragmatic: I was looking for edible splashes of purple to add to the front-yard garden I was planting. I wanted shades of purple that would harmonize with the dark plum trim on my house. "Red Giant" and the milder "Osaka Purple," two Japanese mustard varieties commonly available as transplants in local nurseries, fit my parameters perfectly.

I watched as the little narrow-leafed seedlings developed into big, bold, billowy folds of purple and green. I wasn't sure they would measure up tastewise to my favorite cool-weather greens, spinach and Swiss chard, but it didn't matter. They were gorgeous, and mustard seed is cheap.

That was about three or four years ago. Since then, I've learned a thing or two. Although mustard will never replace spinach and Swiss chard on my fresh-from-the-garden kitchen dance card, I have come to appreciate the spicy allure of this cruciferous cabbage cousin.

Compared with other leafy greens in the cole or Brassica family (kale, collard, turnip greens), mustard greens are fiery, especially when fully mature and raw (think Dijon mustard), and they're a great way to bring some heat into the cool-weather garden.

Snip a leaf from a mature "Red Giant," hand it to unsuspecting garden visitors, and watch their eyes go wide with surprise as they start to chew. At first the flavor is peppery and green, but then it builds to a pungent burn that lingers briefly on the tongue and then sweeps upward into the sinuses. The words that follow are usually along the lines of: "What IS that!? Some kind of wasabi?"

Well, yeah, sort of. Wasabi and mustard greens are in the same family.

And speaking of wasabi, did you already know this? Much of the green pasty stuff you get in Japanese restaurants and the powder you can buy at the grocery store isn't made from actual wasabi. Real wasabi requires special growing conditions that make it really expensive, so mostly what you will find when you go looking for it is a mix of horseradish, mustard powders, and other flavorings.

And in case you were wondering, horseradish is also a mustard cousin. It's a big family.

Pickled Mustard Greens

Makes about 8 servings as a relish

2 cups water

2 tablespoons sugar

1 tablespoon salt

1 1/2 cups white vinegar

1 1/2 pounds Japanese mustard greens

2 or 3 serrano chiles, split lengthwise

1 clove garlic, sliced in quarters

1. In a small saucepan, combine water, sugar, salt and vinegar. Bring to a boil over high heat, then remove from heat. Cool slightly. Using a paring knife, trim stems of washed mustard greens from leaves.

2. Cut stems into 2-inch pieces and place in a 1-quart measuring cup. Coarsely chop enough greens to fill the measuring cup when added to stems and packed down gently. Pack stems, leaves, garlic and chiles into a clean glass 1-quart jar.

3. Pour hot liquid onto greens, making sure that the greens and stems are completely submerged. Cover and refrigerate for at least 3 days before serving.

- Adapted from Saveur magazine

Note: Pickled greens and other vegetables are often served as an accompaniment to spicy meat dishes. Try these with spicy grilled baby-back ribs.

Per serving: 36 calories, trace fat, trace saturated fat, no cholesterol, 8 grams carbohydrates, 4 grams sugar, 2 grams protein, 895 milligrams sodium, 3 grams fiber

Mustard Green Wraps

Makes 2 to 3 servings as a main dish

Canola or grapeseed oil for sautéing

1 to 1 1/2 cups cooked pork roast, chopped

2 scallions, chopped

1 to 2 cloves garlic, mashed 1 tablespoon tamari sauce

1 tablespoon chopped cilantro

2 or 3 large "Red Giant" mustard leaves, slightly wilted (see notes)

About a cup of broccoli stems and carrots, peeled and cut into matchsticks of various lengths

1 scallion, sliced in three long strands (optional)

Salt and pepper to taste

Dipping Sauce (recipe below)

1. Add a splash of oil to a hot, heavy-bottom skillet or wok. Add pork and sauté for a few minutes or until it starts to brown. Stir in chopped scallions and garlic and continue sautéing for a couple of minutes more. Add tamari sauce and cilantro and cook for another minute. Remove from heat, pour into a bowl, and set aside.

2. Trim and remove thick mustard stems. Set aside. Following the length of the center stem, spoon on pork mixture and then place broccoli and carrot sticks beside pork. Place a strand of scallion if using. Fold leaf in half over filling and then gently but firmly, starting with the filled side, roll into a tube. Slice in half or into thirds and serve with Dipping Sauce.

Per serving: 299 calories, 15 grams fat, 3 grams saturated fat, 72 milligrams cholesterol, 14 grams carbohydrates, 6 grams sugar, 28 grams protein, 2,265 milligrams sodium, 3 grams fiber

Notes: To wilt mustard leaves: Lay them on parchment paper in a warm, dry area for about an hour. They become limp and pliable with no need for blanching. In a pinch, if you can't find the flat, purple Japanese mustard greens, you can try whatever spicy mustard variety is available. But good luck trying to get a neat wrap out of a curly mustard green.

To make Dipping Sauce: Combine 1/2 cup tamari sauce, 2 teaspoons apple cider vinegar, 2 teaspoons honey, 2 teaspoons sesame oil (or more to taste) in a small mixing bowl. Taste and adjust amount of sesame oil to your liking.

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