We have become boutique hobbyist gardeners at our house, with a couple of dozen vegetables planted just so in raised beds. That one head of red bibb lettuce looks stately, like a fascinator worn by a member of the royal wedding party. The lone kohlrabi has bulbed up nicely and will soon become a snack. The half-dozen French breakfast radishes, which we watch intently, are close, nearly ready for their 30-second harvest.
Then, there is that boisterous mustard green plant that has crashed this sedate little lawn party, going gangbusters, overwhelming the more mannerly and lovely stalks of Swiss chard next in its row. We have no choice but to hack it back every other day or so and eat it.
Thankfully, we like this variety, Green Wave, quite a lot. I saute and braise the greens at times, but mostly I tear them raw into salads where their gentle pungency takes other ingredients in an appealing direction. Their sawtooth crenulations and raspy spice need a bit of taming, which is why they lend themselves so brilliantly to heartier combinations.
Chefs today are starting to figure this out. Adam Waller, the vegetable whisperer who runs the kitchen at Bocado, makes a terrific salad with slices of tart local apple and shavings of extra sharp cheddar cheese. I’ve made endless variations of this salad at home, sometimes using a nutty Gouda or cave-aged gruyere and then gilding the lily with some toasted pecans.
At Watershed on Peachtree, chef Joe Truex mixes chopped mustard greens and kale with a thin buttermilk-garlic dressing and scatters fried eggplant “croutons” over the top. It’s like an interesting take on Caesar salad, which I’ll be playing with soon enough.
Trying to find the “next kale” has become something of a parlor game for food people. I am not suggesting any such thing vis-a-vis mustard greens. Kale (particularly the dark Tuscan variety) is sweet and meaty in a way that sharper mustard greens could never be.
But I’m hoping that kale can serve as a gateway brassica to the many robust, delicious greens that we collectively call mustards. In addition to my beloved Green Wave, there’s a variety called Golden Frill that is also mild enough for most people to enjoy in salads. Red Giant, which has gorgeous oval leaves, has a bit more bite and works well mixed in with milder varieties for color. Then there are the many kinds of mizuna, with their spindly oblong leaves and crisp texture. All do exceptionally well in Southern gardens.
I recently spent a morning with Susan Pavlin, who runs the Global Growers Network — a group of community gardens farmed by refugees from Africa, Southeast Asia and the Middle East. We started the day at the Umurima Wa Burundi, a collective cultivated by women from Burundi. As we chatted with the women, they hand-selected leaves from row upon row of mustard greens. Some were frilled, some smooth, some green and some red. They collected the greens on a blue tarp to wash, then packaged the lion’s share to sell at local farmers markets. Each left with a big bag of greens to take home and prepare for their families.
Later in the day, Pavlin took me around to see the other farms in the network as well as the apartment complexes where newly arrived refugees find their first homes with the help of local nongovernmental organizations and placement agencies. With evident delight, Pavlin showed me the “guerrilla gardening” that was taking place along the embankments and creek beds lining the low-slung buildings and parking lots. Everywhere were tidy rows of mustard greens that had weathered the frost, green and perky. One of the first things these refugees learn when they arrive here is to plant mustard greens. This hardy green grows and grows, and it can feed the family of anyone who puts it in the ground.
- by John Kessler for the Food & More blog