Mustard – mostaza – is an ancient plant that’s full of appeal for contemporary gardeners. The plants are easy to grow and produce seed in as few as 60 days. The greens are edible, the flowers attractive and if the seeds are allowed to mature on the plant, they will self-sow and still provide plenty for Mustard making. Mustard will grow well in most soils, but will produce the most seed in rich, well-drained soil.
It will thrive if given constant moisture. It likes cool weather; a light frost can even improve the flavour. In the spring, sow the seed in drills about 1⁄8 inch deep and 15 inches apart. You can also plant Mustard seed in September or October for harvest in autumn and winter if the weather is mild.
Mustard in all its forms; shoots, leaves, flowers, whole seed or powdered, is a flavoursome, low-fat way to spice up any savoury food. The whole seed can be used in pickling and cooking or tossed with tender greens in fresh salads. You can stew mature Mustard leaves as a side dish and the crushed spicy Mustard seed can be used to make a variety of pungent Mustards.
You may have seen the vineyards awash in yellow flowers. Those are Mustard plants, the winemaker’s friend. Many vineyard owners plant Mustard deliberately as a cover crop or let field Mustard (Brassica kaber) run rampant. When ploughed back into the soil, the Mustard plants act as a green manure and release nitrogen. Mustard also repels some insects and attracts certain flies which are beneficial predators that attack vine-chewing insects.
All Mustards come from the family that includes broccoli and cabbage. The black seeds are used for moderately spicy Mustards including Dijon-style Mustard. In West Indian dishes, black seeds are fried until they pop. The black variety produces less-desirable greens and is generally grown for seed.
White seeds are the primary ingredient in traditional Mustard and it’s the most common and the mildest of the three. It is commonly grown in the Mediterranean region. The white seeds also have the strongest preserving power and are therefore the kitchen gardener’s choice for pickles, relishes, and chutneys. White Mustards are not typically grown for their greens.
Brown Mustard, the hottest of all, is used for curries and Chinese hot Mustards and also for Dijon-type Mustards.
Pick Mustard leaves for salad when they’re small, young and tender, or use the larger leaves for sautéing or stewing. Add young leaves to stir-fries and salads, adding a nice, sharp flavour.
Larger Mustard leaves need to be cooked. Stew them with bacon or a ham hock, or shred and sauté them with other greens to make a bed for grilled fish and meats. You can also add mustard greens to soups and stews. The Mustard flowers can be used as an edible garnish.
If you want to harvest the Mustard seeds, pick the pods just after they change from green to brown, before they are entirely ripe, otherwise they will shatter. The pods should be air-dried in a warm place for about two weeks. Spread them out on clean muslin, an old sheet, or a fine screen. Once dry, gently crush the pods to remove the seeds and hulls.
Mustard seed contains no cholesterol, only trace amounts of vegetable fat and about 25% protein. Leaf Mustard contains calcium, phosphorus, magnesium and Vitamin B. Mustard is second in demand to pepper in many countries and historical records indicate the use of Mustard goes as far back as 4,000bc and it is believed that prehistoric man chewed Mustard seeds with his meat (probably to disguise decay). From about 2,000bc, ancient civilizations used Mustard for its oil, a spice and a medicinal plant. It was introduced into western and northern Europe in the early Middle Ages.
Over the years, mustard has been used for its curative powers. It’s been called an appetite stimulant, a digestive aid and a decongestant. Because Mustard increases blood circulation, it’s often used in plaster form to treat inflammation. Folklore has it you can even sprinkle Mustard powder in your socks to prevent frostbite!