Before pepper, there was mustard. This much-loved spice has a history, both as a spice and as a medicine, that goes way way back ... well before Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama discovered pepper in India. In Egypt, pharaohs were sent off to the afterlife with a scattering of mustard in their tombs, and Hippocrates used it in medicines and poultices. To this day, I still mix mustard powder with water and put the paste on a prickle that is festering and won't come out. This simple poultice draws the prickle and the poison around it up to the surface.
The plant that bears these spicy, sinus-opening seeds comes from the Brassicaceae (mustard family), which makes sense when you think about the kick delivered by radishes, wasabi, horseradish, watercress, rocket and spicy Asian mustard greens.
If, like me, you've had problems with wireworm in your potatoes or nematodes in your soil, planting mustard seed works well as a sustainable method of bio-fumigation. Sow mustard seeds densely from early to mid-spring and once the plants are nice and leafy (but before they start to go to seed), chop them back into the soil.
There are more than 40 different kinds of mustard, but more important than knowing the taxonomy of this useful plant is knowing how to release the pungent bite of its seeds. Pop a whole mustard seed in your mouth and roll it round - there's no aroma and no flavour. The seeds require crushing and combining with liquid such as water, or some kind of acid like verjus, wine or lemon juice, in order to activate the chemical reaction that gives mustard its peppery bite.
Using an acidic substance rather than just water helps the mustard to hold its heat. When you use water, the heat dissipates quite quickly. Heating mustard also reduces its pungency. English mustard powder is mixed with water and served fresh. In this form it's fiery and hot like wasabi, and has for a very long time been the preferred condiment to accompany roast beef. The more subtle and elegant Dijon mustard, which is ground and prepared with verjus (the acidic juice of unripened grapes), holds its flavour for months, though once opened it's best used within a couple of months. Seed mustard (wholegrain) is milder than smooth and American mustard is milder again.
From a nutritional standpoint, it's handy to know that adding some mustard or mustard seed when you are cooking broccoli (or making a broccoli salad), will greatly enhance the content of potentially protective, cancer-inhibiting chemicals.
Dijon mustard is key to a good French-style salad dressing. Not only does it give that particularly appealing "French" flavour, it also emulsifies the dressing so it holds together without separating.
My friend Lizzie makes the most fabulous chicken nibbles using a marinade of 2 Tbsp of American mustard, 1 tsp of powdered garlic and herb salt, the juice of 1 lemon and 1 Tbsp olive oil. Mix everything in a clean bag or bowl, add the wings and mix it all up, then leave for a couple of hours before spreading out in a roasting tray and baking. (I've also used this mixture to coat potatoes before roasting - it's terrific.)
When a dish tastes a little bit flat or needs a light kick, go for the mustard, it makes friends with most other flavours, just like pepper.
Chicken and leek gratin
Here I've updated a classic leek and chicken bake by marinating the chicken in cayenne, mustard and Worcestershire sauce. It's a useful dish to make in the morning and keep in the fridge until you're ready to pop it in the oven. I often double the Provencal crumb so I can keep some in the freezer to use on cauliflower cheese, as a crust for lamb or spooned into large mushroom caps before baking them.
Ready in 1¼ hours
3 Tbsp butter
4 leeks, thinly sliced
Salt and ground black pepper, to taste
12 boneless, skinless chicken thighs
2 Tbsp Worcestershire sauce
2 tsp Dijon mustard
1 tsp chopped thyme leaves
½ tsp cayenne pepper
½ tsp salt
½ cup cream or chicken stock
½ loaf day-old rustic bread, such as sourdough or ciabatta
4 cloves garlic
2 handfuls parsley leaves
Zest of 1 lemon, finely grated
¼ cup melted butter
1 tsp coarsely chopped rosemary leaves
½ cup coarsely grated parmesan
Heat butter in a heavy pan, add leeks and season with salt and pepper. Cook over a low heat, stirring now and then, until soft and no longer bright green (about 15 minutes).
While the leeks are cooking, place chicken in a bowl with Worcestershire sauce, mustard, thyme, cayenne pepper and salt and stir to combine. Allow to sit for 10 minutes while the leeks cook and you make the Provencal crumb.
Break the bread into rough chunks, removing crusts if they are very hard, and pulse in a food processor until coarse crumbs form. Set aside 2 heaped cups and freeze any remaining crumbs for future use. Place garlic, anchovies, parsley, lemon zest, butter and rosemary in a food processor and whizz to chop finely. Add breadcrumbs and parmesan and pulse to just combine. Provencal crumb will keep in a container in the fridge for up to a week or can be frozen.
Remove cooked leeks from heat and mix in cream or chicken stock. Spread evenly in the base of a large, shallow oven dish. Arrange chicken on top then cover with Provencal crumb. It can be prepared in advance to this stage and chilled for several hours until needed. When ready to cook, preheat oven to 180C fan bake. Bake until chicken is fully cooked through and crumbs are golden (about 45 minutes).
Cashew mustard dressing
Nuts create this creamy dressing without the need for oil or cream. It's a great method to have up your sleeve for other sauces like satay sauce, or add curry spices for a creamy Indian-style dressing.
Ready in 5 minutes
Makes ¾ cup
½ cup roasted, salted cashews
1 Tbsp seed mustard
2 Tbsp lemon juice
1 tsp honey or agave syrup
½ tsp salt
About ½ cup water, to thin
Place all ingredients in a food processor and whizz to a smooth sauce. Thin with a little extra water if desired to reach your preferred consistency. Store in a jar in the fridge for up to 2 weeks.
Baked fish with spiced coriander sauce
Ready in about 40 minutes
This has to be one of my all-time favourite ways to prepare fish. The fish first marinates in a lemony bath, then a lightly spiced, verdant coriander sauce goes over and it's baked to tender succulence.
¼ cup lemon juice
1 Tbsp crushed garlic
1 tsp each salt and ground black pepper
4 thick boneless fish fillets (at least 1.5cm thick)
½ cup cream
1 tsp each prepared mustard, garam masala and turmeric
½ tsp chilli flakes
½ cup coriander plus extra to garnish
Rice and Asian greens (to serve)
Place fish fillets in a baking dish in a single layer. Combine lemon juice, garlic, salt and pepper and pour over fish, turning to coat in the mixture. Leave to marinate in the fridge for 30 minutes.
Blitz together cream, mustard, spices, chilli and coriander and pour evenly over the fish. (At this stage the fish can be marinated in the fridge for longer if desired.)
Preheat oven to 220C. Bake until fish shows no resistance when pressed, 10-15 minutes depending on your baking dish and the thickness of the fillets.
Serve with sauce and garnish with extra coriander. Accompany with rice and lightly cooked Asian greens.
Match these with ...
by Yvonne Lorkin
Oak Estate Home Block Hawke's Bay Chardonnay 2019 ($30)
I see the words "chicken" and "leek" anywhere and I'm immediately reaching for chardonnay. But not just any chardonnay, oh no. I want one boasting a balance between roasty, toasty complexity, a hint of dried herbs, grilled grapefruit, smoked almonds and nectarine niceness to pair with the creamy, dreamy goodness of this gratin. And that's exactly what you get from this tiny little vineyard growing in the deep, iron-rich soils of Hawke's Bay's Bridge Pa Triangle sub-region.
Honest Horse Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc 2021 ($40 per 2pk)
Craig and Tamara Plunkett are the faces behind Plunkett Estate. They might be a new wine enterprise in the Spring Creek sub-region of Marlborough, but their family farm has a long history of being very horsey, hence the name. I often find Spring Creek sauvignon to have a distinct lemony character and this one has it in spades which is why it's so perfect with this recipe. It's gently tropical to drink with a lick of basil and passionfruit to round out the finish. It's a lightly styled example that won't overwhelm the fish. honesthorse.co.nz