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If something “cuts the mustard,” it is effective or satisfactory. Precisely how this definition originated is somewhat dubious but we know it was around the turn of the 20th century. The first recorded use of the term was in the O. Henry story, “The Heart of the West” in 1907. But this is only the idiomatic history of the word mustard.
The actual lexicology of the word mustard has its roots in the “must,” (unfermented grape juice) that the Romans mixed with mustard seeds to create “mustum,” the condiment that is the forerunner to modern day mustard. The plant the mustard seeds emanated from was known as the senvy plant. Successive translations of mustum by the French and English respectively, eventuated in the term mustard which became eternally linked with the plant. The name senvy eventually vanished and the plant simply became known as the mustard plant, (of which there are a number of varieties).
Mustard originated in the Mediterranean and Asia and has been used by man for at least 5,000 years for both culinary and medicinal purposes. There are white (or yellow), brown and black mustard seeds. The brown and black are the most pungent. Mustard comes in different styles depending on the types of seeds used and/or the addition of other ingredients. In general, mustard is made from ground mustard seeds, seasonings, and some type of liquid such as vinegar, wine, water, etc. Today, the world’s leading producers of mustard are The US, Canada, India, England, and Hungary.
American style mustard is made from white seeds, is less pungent, and is colored by turmeric, a spice derived from the root of a tropical plant native to Asia. English mustard contains white and brown seeds, wheat flour and has more kick than its American counterpart. Dijon mustard, hailing from Dijon France, is made from brown or black seeds and of course, white wine. Chinese mustard, made from brown seeds, is one of the hottest. Creole mustard is also quite hot being made from brown seeds and horseradish. German mustards vary from sweet to hot. Finally whole grain mustard is made from whole and/or partially crushed seeds.
Mustard seeds are sold whole or ground. The whole will keep for up to a year while the ground is circling the drain at six months. As with all spices, keep them in a dark, cool place. The ground or powdered mustard must be mixed with fluid to create the heat due to an enzymatic process that is generated by the liquid. Mustard seeds contain selenium, (a purported cancer fighter), magnesium, and omega-3 fatty acids which are reputed to lower cholesterol.
Mustard and mustard seeds have numerous culinary uses beyond our beloved hot dogs, burgers, pastrami, corned beef, and pretzels. Mustard is used in pickling, brines, sauces, mayonnaises, and to season cooking liquids. Various meats, poultry and fish can be covered with a mustard crust before being cooked. Mustard also plays an important role in salad dressings where its emulsifying properties facilitate the binding of the constituents.
Mustard greens are the leafy greens of the mustard plant. The mustard plant, or senvy for old time’s sake, is a cruciferous vegetable. Like its other family members, (broccoli, turnips, rutabagas, kale, cabbage, chard, and Brussels sprouts), it is high in anti-oxidants which are alleged to prevent cancer. Mustard greens are also high in fiber and vitamins A, B, C and K. They are available year round but are most abundant from December through March. Like all greens, choose specimens that are brightly colored, crisp, and devoid of any wilting or icky spots. Mustard greens are tasty and have wonderful peppery nuances. Simply sauté them with garlic and oil. Or simmer them with a pork product, (bacon, pancetta, a ham hock, etc.) in broth. Or see if my recipe below for spaghetti with mustard greens cuts the, well, you know.
• 12 oz. spaghetti
• 2 batches of mustard greens
• 5 strips of bacon, sliced
• Olive oil as needed
• Pinch of hot pepper flakes
• 1 small onion, chopped
• Salt and pepper to taste
• 4 garlic cloves, chopped
• 3 oz. white wine
• 1 can chicken broth
• Parsley, chopped to taste
• Grated Parmesan cheese to taste
Try to time the pasta so that it’s done near the time the sauce is finished. I like to remove the pasta a minute or two early and finish it in the sauce. Prep the greens first and then turn on the heat for the pasta water as you start making the sauce. If the final sauce needs a little fluid you can always add some of the pasta water. Therefore, make sure you save a little bit before draining the pasta.
Remove the stems from the mustard greens, break them into smaller pieces with your hands and wash them thoroughly. Cut the bacon into small pieces and sauté it in the olive oil with the hot pepper until crisp. Do not drain the bacon fat. Add the onion and sauté until soft. Add the mustard greens a batch at a time with salt and pepper, adding more oil if necessary. When they are all incorporated add the garlic and sauté until the greens are fully wilted. Deglaze the pan with the white wine and reduce to at least half. Add the chicken broth, bring to a boil, and then reduce to a simmer. Finish the pasta in the sauce, add the parsley and serve with the Parmesan cheese.
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