The Fat of the Land

Month: February, 2015

In Defense of Mustard Greens

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Of all the vigorous greens from which we select our weekly staples at market, perhaps none elicits more bewilderment than the mustards. A member of the seemingly infinite brassica tribe (which includes, among many others, kale, broccoli, and cabbage), the mustard family tree is complex and navigating its myriad branches is like committing to a trip down the proverbial rabbit hole. Not to mention that a mere nibble of some of the more pungent varieties can set your tongue tingling with eye-popping spice.

Unsurprisingly, those of us raised without so much as a forkful of mustard greens tend to pass by their tender, undulating, often brightly painted bundles for more familiar forage. I know I did until, working as a farmhand, I found myself with massive quantities of them (said bunches ignored at market). Poor enough not to refuse free food, I took them home and gave them a go, sautéing the chopped greens in oil and garlic. Their infamous heat (the sort that feels like a soda rocket shooting up your nose only to crash and fall back on your tongue in flames) had all but vanished.

The cooked greens were bitter, but not unlikeably so, with a lasting pepper-scented nuttiness that seemed to buoy up the delicate herbal and mineral notes. Like spinach, their texture melted to softness with the bounce of stiff custard, a few bits of stem still sporting a slight crunch. The next day, feeling confident now, I added sautéed mustards to eggs scrambled in butter: vitamins cloaked in luxury. For the rest of the season, I chopped huge bunches into tomato sauce for pasta, dumped them into soups, set everything and anything on beds of them. And when my stint at the farm was done, I found myself truly missing them.

Mustard greens tend to get confused among a whole library’s worth of Brassica varieties that originated in the Central Asian Himalayas and were developed over thousands of years across the Asian continent, often referred to, in a breath, as Asian greens. If we take a moment to imagine all the diversity of European brassicas (kales, collards, cabbages, broccolis, Brussels sprouts, cauliflowers, turnips, etc.) lumped under a single label, let’s say “European greens,” we can begin to comprehend the gross oversimplification (and ethnocentrism) of the term “Asian greens.”

Swimming among a rousingly diverse sea of pak chois, Chinese cabbages and broccolis, Japanese turnips, mizunas, mibunas, and tatsois (to name a few), the mustards rank as one of the most directly translatable to Western cuisine. Their screaming raw heat puts many off, though, as I discovered, cooking reduces it to a whimper. Nutritional powerhouses, they are high in many vitamins and minerals and cooked mustard greens have a special talent (shared with kale and collards) for lowering cholesterol.

Looseleaf types make lovely and mild salad greens when harvested young. Once mature, they range in size from dinner plate broad to feather narrow, dressed in various shades of green, purple, and red, their leaves frilled like a tutu, deeply cut and toothy, or rounded and smooth. Some have narrow, tender stems, others thick, juicy stalks ideal for pickling or braising.

Heading types are often milder, producing tightly wrapped hearts of blanched leaves and a meaty central stem favored for pickling. Roughly chopped, these heads also make a delicious addition to the soup pot or sauté pan.

All types, when allowed to linger a few extra weeks in the garden, send up slender flowering stalks. Though not strictly a broccoli, these flowering stems (sometimes sold as mustard raab) have the sweet and tender nature of their European cousin and are highly prized in my garden. If you miss a few of those stems and they end up in full bloom you may (by sheer neglect alone) permit them to mature into seedpods. The tiny black or brown seeds, crushed and pestle-blended with vinegar, sugar, and spices, will make an exciting condiment that may be delicious on a hot dog.

The thing about mustard greens is that there isn’t any reason at all not to eat them except, of course, that you might not have tried them yet. Pick up a bunch; it doesn’t matter so much which one. Maybe you like juicy stems, maybe not. Maybe the purple splashes laced with fuchsia call to you (they call to me), maybe the lime green frills. Cook them like spinach—in pasta sauce, an omelet, with pork loin rolled around them—or, slathered in some gingery garlicky soy-salty sauce, cook them like a mustard green. They won’t know the difference.

The Sweet Root

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As much as I love the thrill of rapid-fire freshness, freshness bound to the delicate disposition of beloved summer fruits that seem, at times, to spoil nearly as soon as we get them home, I must admit that winter roots are refreshingly relaxed.

Yes, they lack the juicy sweet acidity of tomatoes or strawberries, but they are endlessly patient with my busy life and forgetful ways, biding their time in some refrigerator drawer until I chance upon them in an attempt to beg dinner from what’s on hand. Desperation draws out an old bag of parsnips, looking little worse for their wear. Scrubbed and waiting on the cutting board, they sit in humble readiness, a root vegetable’s take on freshness. For that, I thank them.

Parsnips look and smell much like a carrot, albeit one the color of faded lace. Eaten as such, their dry, fibrous flesh, woody core, and pungent aroma would stop you at the first bite. These are not roots for nibbling on. Compared to carrots, parsnips are old growth—sown in cool spring soils and left to sweeten through a few rounds of the following winter’s frost, they spend a good nine months underground. In places where the soil freezes, parsnips may be left in it, developing deep, rounded sugars as they sit under the snow.

In our region, now is the time of peak parsnip flavor. Without lingering cold to stunt them, parsnips sown last spring will soon begin their second growth phase. As a biennial, parsnips develop tender roots and thick foliage crowns in their first year, flower shoots and seed heads in their second. As the plants mature into their flower-wearing reproductive phase, the taproots lignify, developing a woody core that is unpleasant to eat. Harvesting before spring kicks in (and spring, in western Oregon, starts mid-February) neatly straddles this cusp—offering roots that had the chance to sweeten in cold ground but have not quite initiated their woody second-year growth.

At market, look for medium-sized roots (one- to two-inches in diameter). Larger parsnips are more likely to have that lignified core, though it is easy enough to spot and remove once the root is quartered. Thin little parsnip wisps are likely to be tender, but if you plan to peel them (as most recipes suggest), you will find yourself with little bulk for lots of effort. Parsnips bruise easily for their density, betraying rough treatment with rust-colored scars. But don’t fret about a few blemishes. Parsnip bruises are not like tomato bruises; remember (and return) their forgiving nature.

Traditional treatment of parsnips goes one of three ways: pureed, roasted, or mashed. I find that their punchy, aromatic fragrance brings rooty brightness to mashes or mélanges of roasted winter vegetables that would otherwise tend toward the cloyingly sweet or bland. Parsnip flavor is full of nuance—caramel and pepper, pungent grass, even nutmeg (with which they share the flavor compound myristicin). Slow roasting brings out their sultry texture—silk with lean muscle—one that was used in wartime Britain to stand in for bananas. This in mind, treating a parsnip with the same technique as a potato or turnip smacks of missed opportunity.

Parsnip’s backbone of a flavor profile can stand up to sturdier seasonings than most of its root cellar kin. It pairs with complex and warming curry blends as deftly as with the pungent cleanness of Mediterranean herbs like rosemary or thyme. Oven-roasted olive oil and rosemary parsnip “fries” dressed in flaky salt are deceptively delicious for how easy they are to make. An introvert of a carrot puree, spread on the plate below something you slice, can become an extravagant sauce when roasted parsnips, saffron, and a pinch of freshly grated ginger are pureed along with it. Parsnips have a pillowy glue about them that, when properly fluffed, makes for buoyant dumplings or tender gnocchi.

But the dessert course is where parsnip transformation reaches the level of enchantment. Grate them into cakes and sweet breads a la carrots, of course, but also consider wilder translations. I came across my first parsnip epiphany in Deborah Madison’s Vegetable Literacy, where she includes a recipe for parsnip-cardamom custard. From there, the gates fly open, imagining parsnips balanced by other warming spices like cinnamon and nutmeg, paired with apples, pears, walnuts, dark chocolate, or dates, sweetened with honey, maple syrup, or molasses. Their silky pulp calls out to pancakes, soufflés, tortes, and streusel-topped coffee cakes, their savory perfume to iced, whipped, or even coconut creams. This spring when the pastry cravings come knocking, consider parsnip your root.