I’d make a small wager that if you were to draw up a list of the items in the kitchen that you most take for granted, somewhere near the top of that list would, no doubt, be mustard. It’s curious in a way, because not only has it been around for a long time, it has a broad range of uses. I don’t think many of us would disagree that mustard is, perhaps, the unsung hero of the kitchen cupboard, because it is so easy to use, and it adds a lick of heat and a depth of flavour to a huge range of dishes.
It has a long, and fascinating, history — but we’ll be brief. About the year 1300 BCE, the name “mustard” was given to a condiment by mixing mustum, which is the Latin word for unfermented grape juice, with ground mustard seeds. So while it’s become an everyday kitchen item, its usage goes back a long way. More than 700 years later it is not only still used, but used more or less in its original form.
As one would expect, I think, the French are the largest consumers of mustard in the world, using approximately 1.5 pounds per person per year. Not to become boring with statistics, but to get a sense of the size of the mustard world, more than 700,000,000 pounds of mustard are consumed annually. About 90 per cent of this is yellow mustard, what we think usually about when the word “mustard” comes to mind.
Maybe mustard’s most popular uses is in salad dressings, especially when married with honey, but it’s also used in gelatin salads and molded salads, side salad (especially in summer), and God forbid, mixed for finger-licking chicken dippers. One of its great values is that it’s easy to use. Invariably, you mix a small quantity of mayonnaise with a tablespoon each of mustard and honey, add a bit of lemon juice, give it a good shake, cover it, and store it in the refrigerator.
But since there are so many variations, it is interesting to have an idea of where it comes from, and what other uses mustard has had through the ages — and I mean ages! It is simply a condiment made from the small yellow seeds of a mustard plant. And the whole, ground, cracked or bruised the seeds are mixed with water, vinegar or other spices or flavourings to create a thick paste ranging in color from bright yellow to dark brown. So while we tend to take things for granted, there is clearly a wide range in mustard’s appearance – and therefore, uses.
So what do we think of when we want to add some zip to existing dishes, or add a bit of spice to a sandwich? We wouldn’t usually consider dry powdered mustard, but Mr Colman sure would. His namesake dried mustard – Colman’s – is usually mixed with a bit of water or vinegar and used to add a dimension to an existing sauce.
But typically, we would likely use prepared mustard, or honey mustard, which, as the name implies, the mixture is usually combined with honey and added to top a sandwich, or used for chicken strips. It is delightfully used as a dipping sauce for French fries (ask the Belgians), onion rings or other finger foods. A little less common, but still delightful, are fruit mustards, known in Italy as mostarda di frutta. Common flavours include apple, apricot-ginger, cranberry, lemon, orange, and of course lemon. There must be some value, as recipes have been available since the 14th century.
More popular, though, and especially pleasing are herb mustards, relative newcomers to the market, but which you can usually buy in any upscale supermarket or gourmet shop. Basil, dill, fennel, rosemary and delightful tarragon are all additives that supply one more level of taste. There are almost an infinite number of spicy mustards, including chipotle pepper, habañero pepper, horseradish and jalapeño. One of the nice controls here is that you can add as much of the hard stuff as you like, and get just the result that you want. And then, in a category by itself is horseradish mustard, which adds both a sour flavour and some additional heat.
And indeed, almost every country has its own special national brand of mustard. Certainly the most popular is from France – Dijon – which is a story in itself. But to be sure, the Poles, Russians, Swedes, Austrians, and without a doubt the Germans boast their own superior products. As for Dijon, the best-known of its products is made by a company called Maille. The company also makes a range of pickles, which you are just about as likely to see on the supermarket shelf as the pure, clean yellowish mustard or the more textured product called Ancien. There’s something attractive about the olde worlde look of the slightly coarse product. The flavours are deep and rustic, adding texture to the dishes it accompanies.
Mustard was not always used as food, either. Even into the 1940s, it was used as a poultice to reduce inflammation, and, at the risk of demonstrators setting up in front of the Tidings offices, it was not uncommon to take a mustard bath to ward off impending pregnancy!
But mainly, of course, it is about food! Mustard is used at the table as a condiment for meat, as an addition to mayonnaise, as an ingredient for vinaigrette, and popularly, as a topping at outdoor BBQs. It also acts as a stabilizer between two or more liquids – for example, water and oil. Added to hollandaise sauce, it reduces the possibility of curdling. In all cases, if you decide to use dry mustard, simply add water and it becomes your everyday prepared mustard. So there’s room in the pantry shelf as well as the back of the refrigerator.
While it will gradually lose its pungency, because of its antibacterial properties, mustard does not really require refrigeration. I admit the science is clear, but my habit of storing it in the fridge has been going on too long. And it doesn’t really matter whether you buy your mustard in bottles or those plastic containers, because it’s a stable product. If there is one magical and almost instant sauce you can add to any beef, veal, or indeed, fish dish that has just come off the stove or out of the oven, it is to add some cream into a pan, preferably 25 or 30 per cent (but not more!), then a dollop of mustard, and make sure the heat is low. Blend them together, and slowly pour over the main course. The result is magical, the effort absolutely minimal.
Try adding a touch of mustard to eggs as they are being scrambled (with or without a bit of cream), or added to ricotta whenever you’re using that cheese. And when sautéing, add a handful spinach to a hot pan with a touch of water, add a little grainy mustard, and see how the result adds another dimension of taste to a simple and nourishing vegetable.
And to end on a more traditional note, when that veal chop or pork chop is turned in the pan, smear a little mustard, preferably grainy, to the top of the chop. It not only changes the appearance when you turn it back for a few seconds, but once again adds an additional level of flavor. It takes the usual, and makes it unusual.