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Pungent and flavorful, mustard has remained an important condiment throughout the ages. It is available in whole seeds, as a powder, and, most popular, as a prepared paste. The sharp flavor compliments vegetables, meats, eggs, and fish.
Mustard seeds are valued for their spicy and pungent dried seeds. There are three varieties of mustards seeds – black, brown and yellow - that are used in various aspects of cooking. Slightly larger yellow seeds are the mildest of the three varieties. Black mustard seed is the most pungent of the three. Leaves of the mustard plant are edible and are high in magnesium and vitamins A and C. Left whole and undisturbed, the seeds are completely odorless. But crush them even slightly and they transform into a spice whose pungency can be quite intense. But it is this very pungency that makes the mustard very nutritive. Leaves of the mustard plant are edible and are high in magnesium and vitamins A and C.
Yellow mustard seeds, the mildest of the three varieties, are used in pickling and marinades in the west. Yellow mustard had good preservative qualities and is most commonly used in ballpark mustard and in pickling. It is the addition of turmeric that gives ballpark mustard its intensely yellow hue. Prepared English and French mustards are made from brown mustard seeds. Powdered mustard acts as an emulsifier in the preparation of mayonnaise and salad dressings. Powdered mustard is also useful for flavoring barbecue sauces, baked beans, many meat dishes, deviled eggs, beets and succotash. There are many varieties of ready-made mustards - from mild and sweet to sharp and strong. They can be smooth or coarse and flavored with a wide variety of herbs, spices and liquids. There are several mustard varieties that are grown for their tasty leaves, not their seeds. Giant red mustard and Osaka purple are two popular varieties of salad mustard. The giant red is easy to grow and its tender young leaves give sandwiches a double treat - crisp greens and a tangy taste.
In India, black and/or brown mustard seeds are commonly toasted or fried in a little oil before they are added as a garnish. When added to hot oil, these seeds pop and splutter, developing a nutty taste in the process. This flavor is particularly loved in South India. The aroma and flavor of mustard comes from the essential oil contained inside the seeds. The brown seed is also pounded with other spices in the preparation of curry powders and pastes. Mustard oil is popular all over India, especially as cooking oil in many parts of east India. Mustard leaves are also used in cooking.
Mustard grows easily in moderate climates and is cultivated all over the world today. Depending on the variety, the plants range from 2 to 4 feet tall, made up of long delicate light green stems and narrow leaves and yellow flowers. The mustard grown for seed has long slender pods. As the summer progresses, these will turn from green to brown. The pods are harvested before they split open and placed on drying trays covered with tightly woven cloth to dry. In about 2 weeks they will have split open and the seeds are ready to be used whole, ground into powder, or made into prepared mustard.
Wild mustard is believed to have brought to California by Franciscan Father Serra, planting it as a golden pathway to find his way back home to Spain after his explorations. Napa Valley has a Mustard Festival each spring to celebrate mustards in bloom. It features fine foods, local wines, music, and art displays, wild mustard photo contest and cooking competitions devoted to mustard.
Mustard is native to the Southern Mediterranean region. Leaf mustard has been cultivated in Asia and Europe for thousands of years. It is believed that it was first domesticated in central Asia and the Himalayas. Mustard is one of the oldest spices and one of the most widely used. Mustard seeds are a well-traveled spice. Ancient Rome enjoyed it as a condiment and a medicine. Crops were raised in 800 A.D. Paris to generate revenue. Vasco da Gama carried mustard on his first voyage around the Cape of Good Hope in 1497. The Chinese were using mustard thousands of years ago and the ancient Greeks considered it an everyday spice. The Romans used it as a condiment and pickling spice. In Europe mustard was used by the poor who couldn’t afford black pepper, a very expensive imported spice. However, with the advent of the high period of great feasts and banquets, especially during the Renaissance epoch, mustard became more popular.
Historically, mustard has always held an important place in medicine. The ancient Greeks believed it had been created by Asclepious, the god of healing, as a gift to mankind.
As a medicinal plant, mustard is considered a digestive stimulant. It stimulates appetite and aids digestion. It is used as a folk remedy against arthritis, rheumatism, inflammation, and toothache. Moderate use of mustard stimulates circulation, and so is used as medication for chest congestion, toothache, headache, and to relieve sprains and rheumatism.
Ginger and Green Chilies in Yogurt
This simple ginger and yogurt chutney is very easy to prepare. It is also aids digestion.
½ cup finely grated fresh ginger
4 green serrano chilies
1 cup of plain yogurt
salt to taste
1 tablespoon canola, vegetable or corn oil
½ teaspoon mustard seeds
1 dried red chili pepper (serrano, cayenne or Thai), halved
a few curry leaves
In a blender grind the ginger, green chilies, salt and a couple of tablespoons of water together to a smooth, thick puree. Combine with the yogurt and stir well. Heat the oil in a skillet and add mustard seeds. When they start spluttering, add halved red pepper and curry leaves and remove from the stove. Pour over the chutney and stir well.
A financial analyst turned freelance food writer, Ammini Ramachandran, writes about the history, culture and cuisine of her home state Kerala, India, on her web site http://www.peppertrail.com. Her recipes and articles have been featured in The Providence journal, Flavor & Fortune, www.leitesculinaria.com, and www.ThingsAsian.com. She is working on a cookbook about the vegetarian cuisine of Kerala against a backdrop of cultural and culinary history. She is a member of the International Association of Culinary Professionals and Culinary Historians of New York.