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Wild brassicas blooming on the palmer divide

The wild brassicas are flowering on the Palmer divide, which indicates with extreme certainty one of the two following possibilities: either the last frost has happened, or the plants are senseless.  Certainly this has been something of a crazy year throughout the United States, but, hard won as it may be, the wild throws of temperature are now at least hovering something above freezing.

Brassicas are generally edible, and more often than not, delicious.  When harvesting wild brassicas, however, be careful to achieve positive identification.  They know they are delicious and will pretend to be other plants.  They are such good mimics that even expert hunters may mistake a poisonous or nasty tasting plant for a brassica. 

Brassicas are also known as “mustards,” “radishes,” “cabbages,” or other familiar names.  They are identified by having no coloration of the sap, may or may not have hairs on the stem, may or may not have a waxy coat.  Their leaves are serrated and pinnatifid, with lobe tips pointing towards the leaf tip.  The sprout seeds are usually cordate.  Flowers are what give the plant away best: they cluster at the tops of stems, have four petals cruciform, usually four long and two short stamen, often are yellow, but can be of other colors.  Their fruits are delicacies: they are capsules, with round seeds and usually spicy!

Romans were probably the first to experiment with the preparation of mustard as a condiment.  They also discovered how to use the thistle to make cheese. They mixed unfermented grape juice, known as “must,” with ground mustard seeds to make “burning must,” mustum ardens — hence “must ard.”  The only surviving recipe from the later Roman period (late 4th Century) includes a mixture of ground mustard, pepper, caraway, lovage, grilled coriander seeds, dill, celery, thyme, oregano, onion, honey, vinegar, fish stock, and oil. 

Though the French had been making mustard since the 10th century, the first appearance of mustard makers on the royal registers in Paris dates back to 1292. Dijon, France, became a recognized center for mustard making by the 13th Century. The popularity of mustard in Dijon is evidenced by written accounts of guests consuming 70 gallons of mustard creme in a single sitting at a gala held by the Duke of Burgundy in 1336.  Due to its long tradition of mustard making, Dijon is regarded as the mustard capital of the world. 

An early use of mustard as a condiment in England was in the form of mustard balls – coarse ground mustard seed combined with flour and cinnamon, moistened, rolled into balls, and dried – which were easily stored and combined with vinegar or wine to make mustard paste as needed. The town of Tewkesbury was well known for its high-quality mustard balls, which were exported to London and other parts of the country, and are even mentioned in William Shakespeare's play King Henry the Fourth, Part II.

There are many varieties of mustard which come in a wide range of strengths and flavors. The basic taste and "heat" of the mustard is largely determined by seed type, preparation and ingredients. Black seeded mustard is generally regarded as the hottest type. Preparation also plays a key role in the final outcome of the mustard. Mustard, in its powdered form, lacks any potency and needs to be fixed by soaking. One of the factors that determines the strength of a prepared mustard is the temperature of the water, vinegar, or other liquid mixed with the ground seeds: hotter liquids are more hostile to the strength-producing compounds. Thus, hot mustard is made with cold water, while using hot water results in milder mustard.  The pungency of mustard is always reduced by heating, not just at the time of preparation; if added to a dish during cooking much of the effect of the mustard is lost. 

When hunting mustards, it is difficult to decide whether to enjoy them as a vegetable, flower or fruit!

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