June 13, 2009

Another chance

As spring brings an abundance of greens, a secret weapon to help you jazz up your salad is no further than your refrigerator door. Unusual, maybe. Delicious, yes. And I'm not talking about Hidden Valley or Dorothy Lynch. Among the crust-locked jars in your stash of miscellaneous condiments, you’ll likely find it: mustard. Ketchup’s favorite sidekick has often taken a secondary role among grillers and the picnic crowd. Today I hope to shine a new light on these golden jars of bliss.

I’ve never been much of a condiment person, but there’s a two tablespoon-size exception when it comes to mustard. I’ve started to like mayonnaise after discovering the intensity of the homemade version, and much like this recent mayonnaise situation, I’ve learned to like mustard after moving past the yellow paint – type mustard we often streak on our franks. The kind of mustard I’m talking about is grainy, fiery, wasabi-hot, and golden.

It all started with the vinaigrette, the classic oil and vinegar combo that frequents the much loved salad this time of year. A suggestion to add a smidgen of mustard to the mixture soon turned into spooning it directly on top of the greens in lieu of dressing after running low on my most recent vinaigrette stash.

The mustard plant actually belongs to the brassica family, along with broccoli, cabbage, and turnips. Their seeds, cracked or whole, are mixed or ground into the paste that we understand as mustard. Commercial mustards are often blended with flour and spices, and can vary greatly in quality. The only way to ensure the best, as is often the case, is to make your own. Yellow and white mustard seeds are the largest and mildest, very useful for all-purpose mustard. Brown mustard seeds are more sharp and pungent, and black seeds are very sharp, often being used in Indian cooking.

I prefer a mix of yellow and brown, but make a challenge of it this summer to discover your perfect mustard. If you are going to buy the prepared mix, get the coarse-ground, whole grain, or stone-ground versions. Once you’ve got it, the sky’s the limit.

Basic Mustard
(from NYT’s Mark Bittman)
Makes 1.5 cups

1/2 cup mustard seeds, a mixture of your preference
½ cup red wine or water
½ cup either red wine, sherry, or malt vinegar
pinch of salt

Put all the ingredients in a jar with a tight-fitting lid or another sealed glass or ceramic container. (Don’t use metal; it will corrode.) Shake or stir, then set aside to soak for a day or two. Put the mixture in a blender and puree for several minutes to grind, adding a little extra water as needed to keep the machine running. Stop and scrape the sides down once or twice and repeat. Vary the coarseness according to your preference. Return the mustard to the container and cover tightly. Store in the refrigerator for up to several months. Keep it fresh by putting a slice of lemon on top before closing the lid. The taste will mellow over time.

Feeling daring? Stir any into ½ cup mustard. If adding fruit, vegetables, or herbs – it keeps about a week.
-1-2 Tbs balsamic vinegar
-1/2 tsp each ground cloves, nutmeg, and cinnamon
-2 cloves roasted garlic, smashed with fork (or finely minced fresh)
-1/4 tsp cayenne, more to taste
-mustard relish: ½ cup minced sweet pickle and ¼ cup each minced red onion and red bell pepper
-peach mustard: 1 medium peach, peeled, pitted, cubed, and mashed with a fork
-1 Tbs minced herbs (your preference, suggestion: tarragon or rosemary)
-1 Tbs tomato paste
-2 Tbs honey
-1 Tbs molasses
-1.5 tsp brown sugar