In Praise of Mustard Greens

Yesterday I cooked a mess of mustard greens, my first of the year.  Greens straight from the garden are one of fall’s best treats and for most Southerners that means collards, turnip greens or mustard greens.

Like a lot of our great foods, it seems that these style greens entered the Southern diet through slave culture. Whatever their origin, they’ve been a staple here for a long time.

In our little slice of the South greens are called “salad” (or sallet).  When I was growing up, if you were asked if you wanted some salad, you were being asked if you wanted some turnip greens.  Even now, in our farm supply store the fall greens seeds (which now include kale and spinach) are in a section called “salad seed.”

Turnip greens were the only greens we ate when I was growing up.  I never even tasted collard greens until I moved to Florida as an adult.  When I was a boy, sometimes my mother would send me out to the “salad patch” with a grocery bag (a big paper sack) and instructions to “pick a mess.”  She’d cook them in a big pot, along with a big hunk of fat back.  I’d dowse mine in white vinegar.  Mmmm good.

I don’t recall eating any mustard greens as a child.  Lots of people around here mix them in with turnip greens for flavor so I may have eaten them that way.  In fact it’s common here to sow turnip and mustard greens together for that reason, and when you buy your seed at the store you can have them mix the two together for you if you like.

Back when I was growing up, “salad” was the only thing we planted for the fall.  Traditionally salad is planted on the first full moon in August.  The seed is broadcast and it’s best to mix it with some sand so that it broadcasts more evenly.

When I first started gardening after moving back home I planted turnip greens in mid-August and nothing else. Things have changed.  Now we plant dozens of things for the fall, most of which I had never heard of when I was a boy.  And for the last couple of years I haven’t even bothered planting any turnip greens or mustard greens.  There just wasn’t any interest in them from our customers.  The old days of having a salad patch on the farm are gone, it seems.  Instead of having a large garden of turnip greens we now grow a large garden of kale.

But this year I ran out of seed before running out of garden, so I planted some old mustard seed I had in the remaining space.  It’s coming up beautifully.

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We took a lot of it to the farmers market last week.  We sold out of every type of greens we had, except mustard greens.  We brought almost all of those back home.  In fact, the unwanted leftover greens from the market are what I cooked yesterday.

This week we put mustard greens on the menu we sent out to our customers.  We sold lots of Muruba Santoh, komatsuna and Yukina Savoy.  We sold out of bok choy and tatsoi.   But no one ordered any mustard greens.

Perhaps the glory days of the mustard green are behind it now.  But I’m happy to have had two big helpings of them yesterday and I’m glad to know there’s more where those came from.  I think from now on I’ll just plan on saving a little space for them in my gardens.

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39 comments on “In Praise of Mustard Greens

  1. You may be pleased to learn that mustard greens are alive and well in the northeast, being enjoyed on restaurant menus all over NYC, applewood included. We have been serving mustard greens on many of our menus over the past ten years. When we started applewood farm, mustard greens were among the first crops we planted (largely for use at the restaurant). One of the great things about them is that critters won’t bother with them so, like alliums and herbs, they can be planted outside the garden, with no protection. Additionally, they are as hardy as kale, so we’ve chosen them year after year as a crop to grow in the hoop house over the winter. On those years when it hasn’t been too terribly freezing, the greens have survived and we’ve been able to trek down to the city with a decent amount even in the dead of winter.

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    • Bill says:

      That makes me smile. I had no idea. What variety to you plant and eat? Many of the greens we plant are technically mustards but here “mustard greens” mean Giant Southern Curled. You’re right about their heartiness of course. Easy to overwinter. But unfortunately we have to fence them in or the deer will mow them to the ground.

      I’ve very happy to know that the mighty mustard green lives on! Your restaurant sounds wonderful by the way.

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  2. Jeff says:

    Sounds like it’s time for some PR and marketing efforts. Include some recipes in your menu flyers and consider other ideas to promote mustard greens. I doubt it is the case that people don’t like mustard greens; they probably just don’t know what to do with them. Speaking of which, I’ll have to get my recipe book out – I haven’t cooked any dishes with mustard greens in them!

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    • Bill says:

      We put them in the CSA shares last year and they weren’t popular. Mustards have a strong taste that isn’t everybody’s cup of tea. I’ll keep growing enough for us and they folks who like them, and we do send out recipe tips every week. We promoted mustards last year so maybe it’s time to do it again. My experience has been that things like turnip greens and mustard greens are difficult to incorporate into a diet outside the old traditional food culture of this area.

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  3. nebraskadave says:

    Bill, being from Nebraska, it’s hard to shake us loose from meat, potatoes, and corn. I’m not a real big fan of cooked greens. Salad to me is a raw mess of greens with dressing over it. A steady diet of greens in rural Nebraska is just not on the menu. Most salads at potluck events are potato salad, macaroni salad, coleslaw, carrot salad, or bean salad. Hardly ever are salad greens brought to a gathering. I’m trying to broaden my eating tastes and I plant spring lettuce, radishes, and onions but once their gone so are my salads for the season. Although the Mother Earth News Fair has sparked my desire to grow more than one crop in a space which usually means greens either in the Spring or Fall. Extended season growing intrigues me but not so much to the point of building a green house. A high hoop house? Maybe. But first I must acquire a taste for salad greens like the southern gardeners have. 🙂

    Have a great salad greens day.

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    • Bill says:

      It’s a regional thing I suppose. Before I left for college I don’t think I’d ever had what folks commonly call a salad (lettuce, tomato, etc.). But we ate cooked greens regularly.
      Now we eat a lot of greens raw (more often than cooked greens). And when we do cook them we use olive oil rather than fat meat.

      We don’t have a hoop house but we’re strongly considering it. I used to see no reason to extend the growing seasons but now I’m really attracted to the idea.

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  4. Farmgirl says:

    I’m impressed, I rarely can even sell the curly kale let alone Asian greens! Mmm, I may need to get me some mustard green seeds. That sounds really good right now. Your gardens are beautiful!

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    • Bill says:

      I’m surprised at how much interest we’ve had in the Asian greens this year. In the past we had trouble getting anyone to try them. Of course they’re an easy sell once people do try them. 🙂

      Mustard greens grow really easily here and they’re hearty. Most people prefer to mix them in with some milder greens. If you try them, be sure and let me know what you think!

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  5. shoreacres says:

    I never had a cooked green as a child in Iowa (or a youth, or young adult, for that matter), and the only time I heard the word “mess” was in sentences like, “Go clean up that mess in your room, young lady!”

    Then I came to Texas, and learned “mess” could be used in sentences like, “I’ma fixin’ to cook up a mess a greens.” And of course, there’s the matter of the potlikker. I suspect you’ll get a kick out of this short entry from the NYT on the correct spelling. You’ll recognize some of the names.

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    • Bill says:

      Thanks for that. 🙂

      Sometimes non-Southerners are surprised to learn how much culinary diversity there is in the South. When I was growing up, for example, we didn’t drink sweet tea or eat grits. Neither did we use the term “potlikker.” We ate lots of greens, but I don’t ever recall doing anything with the potlikker.

      Cherie’s family is from South Carolina and they grew up eating rice and things like Hoppin’ John and Crowder peas. All of those were alien to us.

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  6. Collard greens— when I was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Liberia, they were one of our go to items for chop, the national dish, along with potato greens and eggplant. I still make my chop with collard greens. Love them. Curt

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    • Bill says:

      I love them too. Our Southern love for collards derives from Africa. A wonderful gift for which I am grateful. But potato greens? They must be sweet potatoes as I understand the greens from the other kind to be poisonous.

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      • Deb Weyrich-Cody says:

        Poisonous? You bet!
        Potato, Tomato, Peppers, Eggplant… are all related to the Bella Donna /Deadly Nightshade.
        Medici anyone?

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      • That is really a good question on potato greens, Bill. And I don’t know the answer. Maybe is slipped away in the ’50 years ago.’ The greens were quite similar to spinach which is what I use now as a substitute. I’ll bet Shoreacres Linda would know the answer since she was in liberia shortly after I was there. –Curt

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    • shoreacres says:

      Do you stack the leaves, then roll them like a cigar, then slice them? That’s the way my houseboy taught me to do it.

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  7. EllaDee says:

    When I get my garden, I’m going to try growing mustard greens in Australia, I love the sound of them but without the vinegar (which is why in my childhood I never ate spinach, my Dad always dressed it with vinegar). I ate beetroot leaves for the first time recently. What a find, bake the beetroot and make a salad or sauté of the greens. The G.O. of course disagreed and said I was eating cow food! Tastes differ. Dad says pumpkins are cow food but the G.O. loves pumpkin, as do I 🙂

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    • Bill says:

      I really like beet greens. I prefer them over the beet itself. Try planting them thickly then when you thin them saute the baby greens. Yummy.

      It’s interesting how food culture changes over time. Kale was once peasant food and animal fodder, while the privileged ate meat. Now the lower socioeconomic classes eat fast-food meat and the privileged folks are buying kale at trendy upscale grocery stores.

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  8. Deb Weyrich-Cody says:

    Perhaps if you called them “Brassica juncea” or “Kai Choi”, it would make them seem more exotic?
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mustard_greens
    “‘Gator gotcher Granny. Chomp, chomp, chomp…”; )

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    • Bill says:

      I love this line in the wiki: “As with other greens in soul food cooking, mustard greens are generally flavored by being cooked for a long period with ham hocks or other smoked pork products.” 🙂 We don’t put pork in the pot anymore, but that’s the way we cooked them when I was growing up. Actually, just about all veggies were cooked that way. 🙂

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  9. Deb Weyrich-Cody says:

    “Researchers at the University of California at Berkeley have recently discovered that 3,3′-diindolylmethane in Brassica vegetables such as collard greens is a potent modulator of the innate immune response system with potent antiviral, antibacterial and anticancer activity.[8]” is taken from (and be sure to check out the rest of) the Nutritional Value section of: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Collard_greens

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  10. Lynda says:

    I learned to love collards when I was stationed at Pensacola, FL. I planted some other greens this year, and will be learning to cook them. I hope we can make them good tasting! HA, Shoreacres mentioned the “Potlikker” above, and I used the term earlier in the week when serving them with our dinner:

    Bob complained they were bland and not seasoned enough and I said “That is because you didn’t get any of the potlikker with them.” He looked at me funny, like I had corn growing out my ears… he didn’t go back for the potlikker either. Too bad for him, and more for me! 😀

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    • Bill says:

      I learned to love them thanks to a barbecue joint in Tampa. I always had to have them bring me some vinegar though, since no one else ate them that way there. I now prefer collards to any other cooking green. But our fall crop was a fail this year, so it’s going to be turnip greens and mustard greens instead, and that’s just fine by me. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  11. Deb Weyrich-Cody says:

    “… called “salad” (or sallet)”. Okay, so now that you mention “sallet”… In that song “Poke Salad Annie” that I quoted earlier, I can actually hear him say “sallet” and, when I heard that as a kid, I always thought I was just imagining It – so “Thank you!”
    Awesome to hear this again! Tony Jo White… http://youtu.be/fRF24LY5pvw

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    • Bill says:

      I’m pretty sure Faulkner rendered it “sallet.” However it is spelled, it is pronounced “sallet.”

      From the Word Book of Virginia Folk-speech (1899): “turnip-sallet, n. The green turnip tops generally cooked with bacon, jowl or middling.”

      Likewise, from an old North Carolina Guidebook: “Dear to the heart and health of every southerner are the greens or ‘sallet,’ turnip, mustard, poke and water cress, or ‘creases’ depending upon what section one comes from (here we call it creasy salad/sallet). A ‘mess of turnip sallet’ boiled with hog jowl or fat meat is a common dish.”

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  12. avwalters says:

    I love them all, mustard, collard, kale, you name it. I love chard and the Asian greens. Maybe if you threw in some fancy gourmet recipes for the mustard greens, you could turn their heads.

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    • Bill says:

      Me too. I could eat them every day.
      We haven’t really tried to push the mustards, given that we have plenty of other things to offer. But it would be a good idea to look into other ways to prepare them. I just cook them in a big pot with an onion. Stinks up the house and burns my eyes, but oh boy are they good to eat.

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  13. Since you are able to sell the Asian greens, why not put together a stir fry mix and toss a small amount of the mustard greens in it? I think Eliot Coleman does something along these lines and he sells tons of it.

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  14. jubilare says:

    Man, you make me wish I lived closer. I’d take some of those greens off your hand. I love mustard greens!
    My mother is very adamant about it being called “sallet” and not “salad.” ^_^

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    • Bill says:

      You’d be welcome to as many as you like. For lunch today I had a big helping of them, along with some barbecued neck bones. Mmm good.

      I remember being pleased when I first saw “sallet” in print (somewhere in Faulkner, I think). I’d always assumed it was just our country pronunciation of “salad.”

      Liked by 1 person

  15. Deb Weyrich-Cody says:

    Being a bit of a language freak, there’s something that’s been bugging me about this this whole salad vs sallet pronounciation thing… And so, thinking in the Louisianan/Southern way, when I looked it up, I was thinking “sallet=salad=salade”, right? So, when I put “sallet” into Google it came up with “sallet/salade” was a (rounded) Mediaeval War Helmet…
    So, what happens if a “”

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  16. Deb Weyrich-Cody says:

    Being a bit of a language freak, there’s something that’s been bugging me about this this whole salad vs sallet pronounciation thing… And so, thinking in the Louisianan/Southern way, when I looked it up, I was thinking “sallet=salad=salade”, right? So, when I put “sallet” into Google it came up with “sallet/salade” was a (rounded) Mediaeval War Helmet…
    So, what happens if a “sallet/salad/salade” hasn’t gone from BEING the bowl to what you put IN the bowl? Not such a stretch, especially as they may have actually eaten out of their helmets, just like they ate with their knives, right?

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    • Bill says:

      You might be on to something. As Jubilare says, I too read that “sallet” is Middle English and refers to cooked greens. It looks like a French (Norman) word. Maybe the helmet was named after its resemblance to the bowl in which one boils his sallet…

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      • Deb Weyrich-Cody says:

        Honestly, if I were on the road, lugging all my possessions with me, I wouldn’t think twice about using my metal helmet as a cooking pot.
        Oh wait! This sounds like canoe/camping… (Dual purposing is GOOD; )

        Like

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