Mother Earth Living

Herb to Know: The Mustard Seed

It's more than passing the mustard
By Susan Belsinger
August/September 1999
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“The kingdom of heaven is like to a grain of mustard seed, which a man took, and sowed in his field,”Matthew 13:31 reads. “Which indeed is the least of all seeds; but when it is grown, it is the greatest among herbs, and becometh a tree, so that the birds of the air come and lodge in the branches thereof.”

The mighty mustard plant bestows bright flowers that herald spring, crisp greens that spice up summer salads, and those magical seeds. Mustard seeds are key to cuisines around the world: from India, where they are pressed into rich, yellow cooking oil, to France, where the word Dijon needs no further explanation.

If the word mustard brings to mind that yellow stuff you stripe on hot dogs, think again. The tiny mustard seed lends itself to a wide variety of flavors, forms, and functions. 

I’m mad about mustard— Even on custard.

—Ogden Nash

Even though I wouldn't go quite as far as putting it on my dessert, mustard is a ­wonderful condiment, and I have at least seven varieties in my refrigerator at the moment. The commercial ones include smooth and coarse blends and a few “gourmet” kinds containing roasted alliums and jalapeños. Then there are my homemade mustards, so hot that they seem to penetrate the roof of the mouth, ­travel to the sinuses, and make the eyes water. I use them sparingly.

My ­re­frigerator holds none of that turmeric-laden American-style mustard, the kind that ­accompanies nearly every hot dog eaten in the United States.

When I was a child, that bright ­yellow stuff was always on the ­picnic table, the only condiment we ever used on corned beef sandwiches. It was in my grandmother’s deviled eggs (“deviled” means “highly ­seasoned”). Our ham, bo­logna, and cheese sandwiches had mayonnaise on one slice of bread and mustard on the other; that ­flavor is ­ingrained in my taste memory forever.

Although I eventually outgrew ball-park mustard, mustard condiments ­continue to be a staple. Whenever my family goes camp­ing, I take along a jar of mustard-mayonnaise blend for convenience. That combination is also wonderful on pommes frites—the first time I tasted French fries with mustard mayonnaise purchased from a Parisian street vendor, I was hooked.

Just this morning for breakfast, I had hot mustard on a slice of whole-grain bread with aged Dutch cheese; the ­mustard’s zing cuts and complements the rich fat of the cheese. Mustard makes cream sauce less cloying and perks up the flavor. I stir 1 or 2 tablespoons of Dijon mustard into 2 cups of white sauce shortly before serving. The mustard-flavored sauce is good with all types of meat, potatoes, and vegetables, even pasta. (Macaroni and cheese, after all, needs a bit of mustard powder to taste right.) A spoonful of Dijon mustard also counteracts the blandness of a bowl of potato or cheese soup. Equally easy is combining a stick of softened unsalted butter with a ­tablespoon of coarse-grained mustard and a finely minced shallot to make a knockout topping for warm bread or cooked vegetables, especially potatoes.

Susan Belsinger is a frequent contributor to The Herb Companion. Look for her new video, The Art of Flavor: From Garden to Kitchen (Herban Legends/Cooper Productions, 1999).


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