In Defense of Mustard Greens

by Sarah West


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.