Friday, July 20, 2007

MUSTARD: This verstaile herb can be plastered on hot dogs for flavor or on to chests to alleviate congestion.

Pinched in curries, slathered on hotdogs, plastered on chests, or chopped into stir-fries, mustard has been recognized throughout the ages as one of the most diverse (and common) additions to both the dinner table and the medicine cabinet. It has been used in the Indus Valley since ancient times. The Sumerians ate the greens, and Aesclepius, the Greek god of medicine, and Ceres, goddess of agriculture and seeds, are said to have introduced mustard to humankind.

The Romans pounded the seeds and mixed them with wine for the beginnings of the prepared mustard we know today. In fact, the English word "mustard" is derived from two Latin words, mustum ardens, meaning "burning must," and must referring to the name for fermenting grape juice. Mustard grew in popularity during the Middle Ages, and by the 17th century, France had become the center of mustard-preparing activity. Dijon was granted exclusive mustard manufacturing rights in 1634.

Mustard Medicine

For as long as mustard has spiced our food, it has also been an important item in our medicine cabinets. When mixed with warm water, the powdered seeds react to form an essential oil that releases heat. The active ingredients are an enzyme, myrosin, and a glycoside, sinallein. Mustard is known to herbalists as a good laxative and a treatment for bronchitis, pleurisy, hypothermia, and as a gargle to relieve sore throats. In the classic herbal Back to Eden, Jethro Kloss suggests using it in a foot bath to increase circulation in the feet.

Mustard plasters have been used as home treatments for congestion for many years. One recipe calls for one part mustard powder to four parts whole wheat flour mixed with enough warm water to make a paste. The theory is that irritating the skin will draw blood to the surface and relieve inflammation in deeper tissue. Mustard users are cautioned against spreading the paste directly on the skin as it will cause the skin to blister. Rather, spread the paste on paper or lint cloth and lay it against the chest until the skin turns a rosy color. Remove the plaster to let the skin cool and then repeat. Adding egg white to the mixture will reduce the chance of blistering.

Mustard has also been used to treat sprains and rheumatic joints, headaches, and toothaches. A very small amount is said to stimulate the appetite and aid digestion, but this must be used with care as too much can be an irritant.

Spice Up Your Meal

Photo of Mustard Herb But suppose you don't ache. Suppose you'd rather savor the flavor of mustard than use it for medicine. Eat on! But don't limit yourself to the bright paste we smear on hot dogs. Branch out and try something new. Mustard seeds themselves come in a variety of "pungencies"-white mustard (Brassica alba) is considered mildly pungent, whereas black mustard (Brassica nigra or Sinapis nigra) is strongly pungent. White and yellow mustard seeds are used whole in pickling and chutneys. Black mustard seeds are often used in Indian dishes and are heated until they pop resoundingly. The French use brown mustard in their creations, whereas Southerners prefer to grow the brown mustard (Brassica juncea) for its greens, which are also popular in Asian stir-fries.

Growing Your Own

Although various mustard seeds and powders can be found in the spice section of most grocery stores, you can, of course, grow your own. Mustard seeds are sown directly in the soil in spring or late summer. Make certain not to use seeds that have been processed for eating. Members of the cabbage family, Cruciferae, mustard plants are hardy annuals that like sun and well-drained soil. The edible varieties grow four to six feet tall with yellow flowers.

Mustard can be planted as a companion to aid the growth of other plants. Research shows that the presence of mustard reduces cabbage aphids and flea beetles on Brussels sprouts and collards, inhibits the emergence of cyst nematodes, and prevents root rot. Though there is no hard evidence, mustard reportedly stimulates the growth of grapes and fruit trees. Mustard can be seen covering the fields below the grapevines of California's Napa Valley.

Harvest the pods when they have turned brown, but before they split. Mustards are self-sowers and can quickly change from purposeful plants to obnoxious weeds if the pods are allowed to break open and scatter their seeds. Mustard seeds have been known to remain viable for centuries. When the gathered pods shatter easily (usually in two weeks), separate the seeds and store in tightly covered jars.

There are few things more satisfying than spicing up your favorite dishes with mustard grown in your own garden. You can try "preparing" some of your own mustard by combining ground seeds with various liquids (try vinegar, cider, or dry white wine), adding turmeric for color, and blending the mixture in a food processor or blender. You might try adding salt, honey, chopped roasted peppers, and cornstarch or arrowroot powder to extend it. The creation of your own secret recipe for prepared mustard can be just as enjoyable as the end product itself.

Mustard Spiced Greens

These are a spicy Maryland favorite. Vary the heat according to your tastes.

1 small onion, chopped
2 teaspoons mustard seeds
1 teaspoon oil
4 cups chopped mustard greens
2 teaspoons cider vinegar
1 teaspoon sugar
Cayenne pepper and salt to taste

1. In a large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat, sauté onion and mustard seeds in oil until onions are translucent, about 3 minutes.

2. Add greens, vinegar, sugar, cayenne, and salt. Sauté, stirring often, until greens are wilted but still bright green.

Makes 4 servings.

V PER SERVING: 42 CAL (22% from fat), 1.5g PROT, 1g FAT, 6.5g CARB, 15mg SOD, 0mg CHOL, 2.5g FIBER

Tarragon Mustard Sauce

A nice sauce for dipping or grilling.

1 large onion, minced
2 teaspoons vegetable oil
1-1/2 cups white wine or vegetable stock
2 teaspoons honey
1/2 teaspoon salt, or to taste
5 tablespoons smooth Dijon mustard
2 tablespoons minced fresh tarragon

1. In a skillet, sauté onion in oil over medium heat until limp and starting to color, about 10 minutes. Stir in wine, honey, and salt, and bring to a boil. Boil 3 minutes to reduce liquid; remove from heat.

2. Transfer mixture to a blender or food processor. Add mustard and tarragon and blend until nearly smooth.

Makes about 2 cups.

V PER SERVING: 27.5 CAL (23% from fat), 0.3g PROT, 0.7g FAT, 1.5g CARB, 63mg SOD, 0mg CHOL, 0.1g FIBER

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