Cutting the Wild Mustard: Brassica & Sinapis
Lorenzo’s Oil and Canola, Too
If you can’t find a wild mustard growing near you, you must be living in the middle of a desert ‘cause they even grow in the arctic circle. In fact, it’s among the few plants in Greenland and is even found near the magnetic north pole.
A native of Eurasia and cultivated for some 5,000 years, the Mustard — Brassica et alia, previously Sinapis et alia, or as the botanists write, spp. — came to North America in the 1700s and is as wide-spread and varied as possible. It usually blossoms in winter here in Florida and over Christmas I saw a patch in full bloom in a backyard, feeding honeybees. I would have brought some home for supper but couldn’t find the homeowner for permission to harvest. But that’s okay, there’s an orange grove near me that is starting to sprout mustards, so…
The word “mustard” comes from the dead Latin phrase “mustrum ardens” because the Romans put the peppery “burning” seed in wine must. Why? They watered down their wine. Perhaps mustard added flavor. Maybe they liked their wine peppery. Brassica is Latin for cabbage and Sinapis (sin-NAP-is) is Greek meaning mustard. In other words, it was correctly named in Greek but is now incorrectly named in Latin. That’s botanical progress. Modern Greeks call it sinapi. ( I think Latin is preferred over Greek because it is a dead language. One doesn’t have to learn to speak Latin to be considered a scholar of said…. which is kind of like being a celibate sex expert. )
While the table condiment mustard does indeed come from the mustard seed, the leaves, flowers, seed pods and roots are also edible. Mustards are in the same large family with cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli, turnips, kale, kohlrabi, wasabi, and others. The only problem is there are so many wild mustards its hard to tell which one you might have. They are all edible, but some are a little more edible than others. What that means is mustard greens I used to pick in Maine were fairly tender, and not strong when cooked. The mustard greens I pick here in Florida are much tougher and spicier. They have to be chopped up more and cooked longer, but they still are delicious if a bit toothy. The point is you have to experiment a little to find your preference with your particular mustard.
Young leaves can use used raw in salads, or cooked as a potherb. As the plant ages, it becomes strong and sometimes the leaves are too bitter to eat. Tender young seeds pods can be added to salads, but are peppery. If you are so inclined, you can make mustard out of the seeds, just grind them up and mix with vinegar, salt optional. Each plant can produces 2,000 to 3,500 seeds a season and the seeds can remain dormant underground for years.
Flower buds are also tasty when boiled. One nice touch is to add raw mustard flowers to your favorite vinegar to give it a little personalized pick-me-up — like the Roman wine, after all vinegar is just tarted up wine. The ratio is about half a cup of blossoms per pint of vinegar. Oh, the shape of the blossoms — like a Maltese cross — gave name to their family, Cruciferae, or cross-like. That’s the positive side of mustard, here is the negative side:
Many agricultural departments classify wild mustard as poisonous because if cattle eat too much of it they can get quite ill with stomach irritations — and they have more than one stomach to irritate. Humans aren’t the herbivores cattle are and we don’t tend to eat as much mustard, still some caution is advised. Many are allergic to mustard so if you’ve never eaten any, it is best to try only a little at first. Mustard is a bane to dairy cows because it can flavor the milk making it unsellable.
Mustard, also know as charlock, is also at the heart of an academic controversy representing trillions of dollars. Canola is a mustard seed oil, from the rape plant, a mustard species. The word Canola comes from “Canadian Oil Seed, Low-Acid” which was its experimental name. Canola is currently very popular and presented as a healthy oil. Some experts would disagree, at the forefront, Dr. Mary Enig, PhD., an oil expert who often champions coconut oil. Here is one place to read one side of the story: The Great Con-ola.
There is a constituent in the rape seed oil — erucic acid — that is toxic to people and many animals in any significant amount. It has to be refined out. That refining process involves heating and deodorizing which Enig says increases the amount of chemicals and transfats in Canola oil. In her view it is a barely tolerable seed oil in its natural state made more unhealthy by refining. One note though, erucic acid is helpful in the treatment of adrenoleukodystrophy, the wasting disease, and was the magic ingredient in Lorenzo’s oil. Does this mean Lorenzo could have been helped by eating the seeds of a local mustard plant? That’s an interesting question. Modified olive oil and rapeseed oil stopped the progression of his disease. Lorenzo was helped with the usually toxic erucic acid about the same time agribusiness was trying to produce an erucic-free rapeseed oil. Whether that oil is good for those of us who are healthy is a hotly debated issue. In it natural state rape seed oil when used for cooking can cause lung cancer.
In the 1980′s corn oil — which research consistently shows is high-octane cancer fuel — and soybean oil, heavy in unbalancing Omega 9’s — were coming under increasing criticism as being unhealthy. The search was on for a vegetable oil that had a supposedly good health profile. Rapeseed oil was a possibility but it had to be refined for mass consumption and the erucic acid removed. In the quarter century since what was once considered an oil fit for only industrial uses has become the household food oil of choice. There isn’t much human use to prove this modified version of rapeseed oil safe in the long term. None in fact. There are no long-term studies on human use because it has been assumed to be safe. Animal studies, however, implicate rapeseed oil in creating heart lesions, Vitamin E deficiency and stunted growth. Cattle growers refuse products with it. You may want to read up on Canola oil and consider its value to you.
Personally, I avoid Canola oil, preferring oils that were around in my grandparents’ day and avoiding all oils (and sugars or substitutes) discovered or made in the 1900s. I think the diabetes and obesity epidemics are directly caused by manufactured oils and high fructose corn syrup — that and the wrong advice to eat a high carbohydrate diet. My mottos are: Trust the cow, Not The Chemist, and, Stay Away From Doctors… They Make You Sick. I am not a health nut, but in the long run I think eating like our great grandparents may just be the best diet because it was proven over thousands of years to work. They ate real food. Today we tend to eat processed semi-food stuff, what I call technofood.
Off the soap box and back to the plant: When I was a kid, back in the Dark Ages, my father built our house with no plans for a lawn. Still, the graded area had to be covered with something so he spread hay chaff from the hay barn all over the area in the spring. That year — 1960 — we had two major crops grow there. First was a very healthy and happy small field of mustard plants, most of them reaching towards six feet tall. Following them was an equally lush growth of pigweed, Chinopodium album. We ate a lot of greens that year.
Green Deane’s “Itemized” Plant Profile
IDENTIFICATION: Flower: Four four petals NOT veined; Flowers tend to in clusters. Leaves: toothed, somewhat lobbed. Seed are in pods called siliques. The pod open straight down the middle to expose the seeds on both sides. Wild radish pods usually break into fragments. Can grow to six feet tall.
TIME OF YEAR: Springtime, or summer depending on where you live.
ENVIRONMENT: Well-drained soil, sandy to rich, old pastures, gardens, lawns, roadside.
METHOD OF PREPARATION: Leaves as potherb, seeds for spice or flavoring, can use flowers to flavor vinegar. Some young leaves can be used raw in salads. Try a little first.
Recipe by Pascal:
Take 3 part apple cider vinegar, 2 parts white wine, 1/2 clove garlic, a bit of California Bay Leaf and Italian Spices, red chili and voila! Oh…and a dash of sea salt as well per jar. Canning it for 15 minutes (water-bath canning).