One of the (many) great things about growing your own fresh vegetables – aside from the unmatched freshness – is that you get to eat foods that are hard to find, or even impossible, to buy. Mustard greens are one of the garden delights that definitely fit into that category.
Just like apples (Mackintosh, Granny Smith, Gala) – most other fruits and vegetables exist in numerous varieties as well. The mustard greens that I grow are a variety called “Giant Red,” and they are so tasty and productive that I have kept my own seed line going for fifteen years now. I love them for their rich colours – the beautiful burgundy veining on the dark green leaves – and also for how spicy and strong they are. Some mustard greens are milder and great in salads, but Giant Red is strong, and super-tasty for cooking.
This past year, I actually forgot to collect the seed from my mustards. But these guys are really resilient, I just hunted around in the garden in early spring to look out for seedlings. With their flush of purple or red, they’re easy to distinguish from kale seedlings. Sure enough, I found nearly a dozen of them, so I transplanted them into the bed where I wanted them to grow.
Mustard greens thrive in the cold. They need to be seeded directly into the garden in the very early spring. (I do sometimes seed them in trays before transplanting into the garden – but if you try this, you must transplant them with extreme care because their roots are not very resilient). The plants can’t handle the heat at all, so if you seed them too late you will just get tiny scrawny plants.
How do you know when to harvest them? You can tell by the shape of the plant. The leaves should all be coming out of the centre crown. If the plant is starting to develop any stem at all, then harvest it right away: it’s bolting and won’t be getting any bigger. (But always remember to leave one plant for seed).
Harvesting is simple: cut them off at the base, like you would a head of lettuce, when they have achieved maximum size.
A seeding mustard plant may grow to chest height or more, and you can use the bright yellow flowers to decorate salads.
One of my favourite recipes for mustard greens is a quick pasta. Chop and sautée some onions while you put your pasta on to boil. Meanwhile, coarsely chop the mustard greens – the stems are very tender, so use both the stems and the leaves. Once the onion is transparent and on the edge of starting to brown, add the greens, plus an inch or so of stock, and let them simmer for a couple of minutes.
Strain the pasta when it is still al dente – definitely don’t overcook it! – and toss it into the pot with the veggies and simmer a few minutes more. Serve immediately with grated parmesan – and voilà, a fresh and tasty and unique meal that money absolutely could not buy.
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