MUSTARD GREENS – GARDENING TIPS FROM THE CULINARY VIEW
as recommended by Michael Vidrine
By December we will have had a good freeze or two and the warm season crops are gone. This is the time of year when our cool season crops are in full swing – especially all of our leafy green vegetables like mustard.
Our garden mustard (Brasica juncea) is originally from the Himalayan region of India and has been in cultivation for over 5000 years. Mustard cultivation has spread widely and is common in Asian, African and European (particularly Italian) cuisine. In the US, mustard features predominately in Southern cooking. Being cultivated for so long and over such diverse areas it is now available in an array of different forms with leaves that are flat, ruffled or even frilly and colors from green to red to maroon. Some of the mustard varieties are attractive enough to be considered as ornamentals and can make a great addition to our sometimes drab winter flower beds.
Mustard is one of the easiest vegetables to grow in the cool season. They will prosper in just about any good garden soil and only require moderate fertility with even moisture. Mustard can be direct seeded from fall to early spring. I usually plant rather thickly – 2 to 3 inch spacing – and thin to a 9 to 12 inch spacing. Thinnings can be easily transplanted or consumed as micro greens. Mustard has very few pests or diseases in our garden and I rarely have to use any kind of pesticide on them. The plants are quite cold hardy and will almost always overwinter with minimal or no cold protection. Really cold snaps may cause some leaf burn but after damaged leaves are removed, the plants take right off again.
Mustard is a cut and come again vegetable so harvests can be really long from even a modest planting. Individual leaves can be snapped off at the base or the entire plant can be cut 2 to 3 inches above the crown and will re-sprout vigorously. After cleaning, the harvested leaves can be stored for a few days in a damp paper towel in perforated plastic bags in the refrigerator. Mustard also freezes well – blanch the leaves for a couple of minutes, shock in ice water then dry and freeze in vacuum bags.
Mustards have an assertive flavor that holds up well to unctuous and spicy complementary ingredients. The classic Southern dish is mustard greens sautéed with smoky bacon or salt pork. Classic Italian recipes often call for mustards cooked with garlic and red pepper flakes and a dash of red wine vinegar. Mustard greens add heft to soups especially bean soups and are a common ingredient in many Asian stir-fry dishes. For a bit of variety, use mustard greens in place of cabbage leaves to make cabbage rolls. Raw mustard micro greens make a great addition to winter salads.
There are a host of other leafy greens we grow alongside our mustard greens that share the same cultivation needs but bring somewhat different flavors and eye appeal to the table. Arugula, endive and kale are fairly assertive like mustard but have different flavors. Broccoli rabe (Italians call this rapini) tastes similar to our southern mustard but is a bit milder. There are a host of Asian greens including bok choy, tatsoi, mibuna and mizuna that make fine cold season fare and are easy as pie to grow. The goosefoot family of greens includes beet greens, Swiss chard and spinach which are much milder than mustard and are quite often eaten raw as well as cooked. Spinach can be a bit fussier to get growing than other greens but it is my wife’s favorite so we grow a lot of it. Last but not least we mustn’t forget lettuce – perhaps the easiest leaf vegetable to grow of all. We will plant 5 or 6 different varieties of leaf lettuce in the fall and again periodically until early spring and will have lettuce to harvest until April. Stick with leaf lettuce – head lettuce doesn’t do as well here.
All leafy greens are a good source of fiber and a host of vitamins and minerals. Try a few different varieties in your garden and I know you will find some you really enjoy.
Brazos Valley Gardener, Orchardist, Apiarist and Instructor