Mustard Madness

By Cheryl Angelina Koehler | Photos by Judy Doherty

 

The mustard plant has been coaxed into many forms throughout the millennia that humans have had it in cultivation. From left: Green Wave, Chinese mustard, tatsoi, and mizuma. All have similar yellow blossoms and produce seeds that can range in color from pale yellow to black.

In late February and early March, a yellow haze of wild mustard (Brassica juncea) hovers over green Bay Area hillsides and flows like rivers between Wine Country vineyard rows. This is mustard’s moment—when we all say, ah, how pretty—and then the straggly weed goes brown in the summer drought.

But should you get up close when the wild mustard is still fresh and green, look for the long, narrow green siliquae. Those green bean–like seed capsules are a tasty and tender treat in spring before they dry up and crack open to release their spicy seeds onto the ground in their annual play at making more mustard plants. You could, if you like, gather enough seeds to make a couple of spoons full of Judy’s Homemade Mustard, but it takes massive acreage—like you find in the Upper Midwest and north into Canada—to produce the seed volume to meet consumer demand. Neither would I recommend the leaves of these wild plants for your salad or braise. For those, look to your local farmers, who plant mustard greens in succession so they can harvest both large leaves and baby greens throughout the year.

EAT YOUR GREENS

It was eons ago that wild mustard left its South Asian cradle, spreading around the globe in every direction. It even took root in Greenland! As one of the largest members of the Brassica genus—which includes broccoli, cauliflower, collards, kohlrabi, radish, rutabaga, turnip, nasturtium, watercress, and more—mustards are easy to domesticate and differentiate, so they appear in a dizzying array of forms and flavors. To get an idea, just look in the catalogue for Kitazawa Seed Company, an Oakland business that has specialized in Asian-variety seeds since 1917. Their mustards page shows a whopping 55 unique varieties available as seed, and they describe the set as “diverse, prolific and interesting.”

In midwinter, I found a wide variety of mustard greens by visiting the Old Oakland Farmers’ Market, Tokyo Fish Market, and Berkeley Bowl, and it felt like a special gift when packaged fresh mustard flowers—grown by Heirloom Organic Gardens in Hollister—showed up at Monterey Market as if asking to jump into our recipe photos.

At Oakland’s Freedom Farmers’ Market, Yolanda Burrell of Pollinate Farm described which mustards she grows and uses at home: “My go-to is the curly Green Wave, but I also grow giant red mustard, broad-leaf Asian mustard, and mizuna. I use them young in salads and full size as part of a leafy greens braising mix or as a quick stir-fry or sauté. I always mix around 30% Green Wave in with my collards to give it an extra punch of flavor,” she says.

Paul Canales, chef/owner of Duende and the soon-to-open Occitania in Oakland, offered the following very helpful advice on choosing and using mustard greens for his Potato and Mustard Greens Fritters recipe and other recipes in this collection: “Mustard greens [at the produce stand] vary in maturity, even within a season. Taste them first raw, and if they lack flavor, there is no value in using them. If the greens are more mature, tasting them raw will also give you an idea of their toughness.”

Make Your Own Seedy Mustard

Wanda’s Southern-Style Braised Mustard

Poulet Moutarde with Potato-Mustard Greens Fritters

Bibb Lettuce and Mizuna Salad with Dijon Vinagrette

Popping Mustard Seeds for Breakfast (Poha)

Mustard Loves Pickles

Carrot Mustard Cake with Mustard, Honey, and Fennel Ice Cream

Two Mustard Seed Cocktails

In Search of Mostarda

 

Thanks to these people and businesses for their contributions and inspirations in this story:

Maya Shiroyama, Kitazawa Seed Co.
Heirloom Organic Gardens
Yolanda Burrell, Pollinate Farm
Paul Canales, Duende
Wanda Blake, Wanda’s Cooking
Jamil Burns, Raised Roots
Dana Plucinski, Bay Dish
Nelson German, Sobre Mesa 
Dorothée Mitrani, La Note restaurant in Berkeley
Nite Yun, Nyum Bai restaurant in Oakland
Elizabeth Vecchiarelli, Preserved in Oakland
Wenyan Peterson, Noodles Fresh in Berkeley and El Cerrito
Aaron Murdock, Lhasa Karnak Herb Co., Berkeley
Thayne Robstad & Beth Rodgers, Hearth Restaurant in Saskatoon
Saskatchewan Mustard Development Commission
Ivo Peshev, Flair Project
Tristan Day
Gabrielle Myers, writer, teacher, chef