Michele Anna Jordan really is "The Good Cook." Acclaimed for her excellently researched series, The Good Cook's Books, she adeptly takes a subject and brings forth not just its background, but its nuances, imaginative recipes and handy appendices like tasting notes and charts. Yet her style is as clear and bright as the flavors she celebrates.
She has skillfully done this with Oil & Vinegar, A Tour of Sonoma, Tomatoes and of course, Mustard. We are pleased to present her expert treatise on Mustard in this issue, and on Tomatoes in our upcoming August issue. Her books are ones that I personally refer to often and are standards on my list of top resources. No wonder such culinary experts as MFK Fisher, Madeleine Kamman and Flo Braker have written the introductions to three of the Good Cook's books, testimony to the skillful quality of her work.
by Michele Anna Jordan
A friend opens his desk drawer and finds a tiny plastic package, white on one side, clear on the other revealing the bright yellow mixture inside, ballpark or American mustard, a remnant of a now forgotten lunch on the run. This is a scene repeated across the country daily, people discovering little packages full of mustard when they open drawers, glove compartments, backpacks, purses. Millions of little packets of mustard spurt their yellow interiors each year, millions more are discarded, forgotten, tossed into the corner of the pantry.
Ask an American child about mustard and chances are the description will closely resemble the sharp yellow paste inside the little packet my friend found. This is mustard as most Americans have known it, the mustard M. F. K. Fisher described as tasting "bright yellow", a flavor she considered essential to her chilled buttermilk soup. It is, indeed, our mustard, but it is not mustard most of the world knows.
Mustard is a plant, a member of the brassica genus of the cruciferae family, so named for flowers which sport four petals in a cross-like configuration. It blooms in the early spring, its bright yellow flowers often the first sign of the new season. A mustard plant produces thousands of seeds grouped together in pods. Today, commercial mustard seed comes from just three species of brassica-white, brown, and black-but the seeds of mustard plants, both wild and cultivated, have been used for millennia to season the foods we eat.
In earliest times, seeds were chewed, possibly to disguise the flavor of decaying meat. There are records of mustard's cultivation as early as 5000-4000 BC, and mustard seeds have been found in Egypt's great pyramids. What is it, exactly, that has intrigued the human palate for so many thousands of years?
The characteristic quality of mustard is its sharp, bright heat, an element that can be released simply by chewing the raw seed. This sensation is the result of a chemical reaction that occurs when the outer husk of the mustard seed is shattered and its cellular structure broken. with white mustard, the burning sensation is felt only on the tongue. with brown and black mustards, there is also a sense of vaporization that affects the eyes, nose, and sinuses in much the same way as the Japanese horseradish wasabi.
This sensation is both the key to mustard's intrigue as well as the reason it was not widely accepted here until 1904, when Francis French developed a recipe based exclusively on white mustard seeds. He suspected that Americans were not buying mustard because they did not like its heat, and his success suggests that he was right. Today, French's mustard-bright yellow from turmeric and tart from vinegar-accounts for forty percent of all mustard consumed in this country. The rest of the world, however, seems to prefer mustard not only with more heat, but with more nuance and range of flavor, as well.
Mustard's many nuances come from the ingredients used to flavor the mustard paste or sauce. There is limited variation in mustard itself: mild and hot, coarse-ground or smooth. It is the choice of liquids, of flavoring agents, and the degree of milling that determines the subtle variations in a particular mustard's taste and texture. A variety of liquids-from apple cider vinegar and lemon juice to wine and beer-may contribute their flavors, and a broad range of herbs, spices, and aromatics add essential elements. Nearly all mustards are-and should be-finished with the addition of salt, which both helps preserve the flavors, and, because salt melts slowly on the tongue, brings them together in a harmonious finish on the palate.
Copyright 1996 by Michele Anna Jordan, author of The Good Cook's Book of Mustard. All Rights Reserved. Reprinted with permission.
Check out Michele Anna Jordan's latest book: The World Is a Kitchen: Cooking Your Way Through Culture
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