Mustard SeedsAlthough small, mustard seeds spice up a variety of dishes.
For a country that uses mustard to such a degree, I can bet every one of you has a bright yellow bottle in your refrigerator, possibly a Dijon or pub mustard. However, we don’t seem to do seeds well. I put before you a mustard seed challenge.
I’m not just talking about adding them to pickle brine or squeezing the bright yellow condiment onto your ball-park frank. Mustard seeds create a pungent and lively taste in other savory dishes—a shame to miss. I grew up with mustard seed in vegetable dishes but didn’t blink when they appeared in chutneys, meat, or fish dishes.
We’re all familiar with mustard greens: darkly green, full of good fiber and nutrients, grows well in Missouri. There are three varieties of mustard seed sold that come from varieties of these plants, and they offer differing levels of heat: white mustard seeds (which produce yellow American mustard), brown mustard seeds (used for Dijon), and black mustard seeds. They are part of the cabbage/Brussels-sprouts/broccoli family, and all parts of the plant—leafy greens, seeds, and more—are edible. They’ve been used as booth food and medicine for centuries. Mustard is an important ingredient in some Indian, French and Chinese dishes.
Today, even brown mustard seeds are common in grocery stores, but for freshness, price and volume, Indian and Eastern foods stores are the go-to places for this spice. The key to cooking with whole mustard seeds is heat. Raw, their bitter taste will twist your nose and possibly your entire face. Put them in hot oil, and the profile changes completely—far more complex but still pungent and lively.
For those of you interested in the health benefits of old medicine like mustard, here’s what I found from the George Matelijan Foundation, a helpful resource on healthy foods: among other properties, mustard seeds are a great source of selenium and magnesium and are also a cancer preventative. Mustard is a good source of magnesium and also helps certain conditions, including asthma, high blood pressure, migraine attacks, inconsistent sleep patterns, rheumatoid arthritis, and some types of heart attacks. It is also considered a cancer preventative.
To make all that palatable, I’ve included a recipe from my mother. Originally, it was a spinach dish with a few sprinkles of potatoes. But I emphasized the potatoes after I discovered a woeful lack of the green stuff in my refrigerator, and the recipe stuck in my Missouri family. The recipe is Indian but meshes well with other foods. It’s tasty and easy to prepare. So the only question left regarding the challenge: Can you cut the mustard?
Spinach and Potatoes with Mustard Seed
2-3 tablespoons oil
1 teaspoon black mustard seeds
3 medium potatoes, peeled, cut into ½” cubes and partially boiled
1-1/2 cup spinach, washed and roughly cut, or 1 package frozen spinach, defrosted
1-1/2 teaspoon salt, or to taste
½ teaspoon cayenne pepper
½ teaspoon turmeric (optional)
Heat the oil in a heavy skillet. When hot, add the mustard seeds and let them pop for 3-5 seconds. Add the cubed, partially cooked potatoes, and stir and fry for 5 minutes. Add spinach. Add salt, cayenne and turmeric. Add a little water and cover if needed. The dish is done once the potatoes are cooked through.
Nina Furstenau teaches food writing in the Science and Agricultural Journalism program at the University of Missouri. She is the author of "Savor Missouri, River Hill Country Food and Wine" and "Biting Through the Skin," She writes a bi-weekly column, “A Spiced Life,” for the Columbia Daily Tribune.