While its cousin kale has become downright trendy, admittedly bitter mustard greens are still waging a public relations battle: In a survey administered by food website TheKitchn, the peppery member of the Brassica family rated among the "most feared" vegetables. But for cooks around the world, hardy mustard greens are a favorite ingredient. Here are seven things you ought to know about the cool-weather crop that's figured into Southern diets for centuries:
1. Mustard greens are pickled in Japan, stewed in China and boiled in West Africa, the region perhaps most associated with leafy greens. "Unlike Europeans, West Africans have long considered edible green leaves a vital part of their meals, not just as a famine or filler food," Adrian Miller writes in his recent book, "Soul Food." Enslaved Africans in Southern states supplemented their rations with greens, which remained a dietary staple after Emancipation. Miller quotes a 1928 Chicago Daily Defender story which approvingly reported on the arrival of 29 carloads of mustard greens.
2. Fiber-rich mustard greens are extraordinarily nutritious. They're packed with vitamin A, vitamin C, vitamin K, calcium, iron and potassium.
3. The ruffled leaves of fresh mustard greens can harbor dirt and bugs. Multiple rinses of torn leaves in a colander are usually sufficient for getting the greens clean, but there are online endorsements of the washing machine method.
4. There's nothing wrong with eating raw mustard greens, but heat, salt and fat will help tame their horseradish flavor. Try them braised with leeks, butter and Parmesan cheese, or sauteed with chicken broth and dark sesame oil.
5. When shopping for mustard greens, look for firm, unwilted leaves. The smaller the leaf, the more mild the flavor.
6. According to the most recent report from the USDA, South Carolina is the third-leading state for mustard green production, accounting for 11 percent of mustard greens grown nationwide.
7. Miller traces the major changes in African-American foodways through the preparation of mustard greens, which are now often cooked without pork in deference to religious beliefs, health concerns and economic realities. Unfortunately, Miller has found that many soul food joints serving "motherless greens" aren't compensating for the loss of seasoning. "I think they're relying on us to make up the difference with a dash of hot sauce or vinegar," he says.
Reach Hanna Raskin at 937-5560.