Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Mustard Leaf Curry

“There’s tons of good greens popping up right now!”-Me

“I always picture you squatting in a field somewhere eating grass.”-Nick

“Yeah, that’s pretty much accurate.”-Me

“When I was a kid, I wouldn’t eat my lunch. I would just wait for recess, go out to the edge of the playground and eat leaves. I think I did it because lettuce is green and tree leaves are green, so clearly they must be good for you…that and I loved the movie Land Before Time.”-Nick

“That’s a classic movie! Well, you used to eat leaves and now you’re in a Ph.D. program, so maybe there’s something to it!”-Me


“And, while you were eating leaves I was ‘eating grass’ and I'm in the Ph.D. program too!”-Me

“Hey, that’s two data points right there!”-Nick

“We should write a paper on this!”-Me

I got out on my longboard the other day for a cruise. The pines were pollinating the air, the dandelions were blooming bright yellow-orange, but what I was excited about most were the vibrant greens! While cruising the back country roads I came upon a patch of fresh mustard greens. On a whim I decided to fill the bag in my pocket and make a spring seasonal staple- Saag!


In India, saag is traditionally made with spinach which is cooked down with tomato, onion, and spices to make a “gravy” for chicken or traditional farmers cheese (paneer). In Kashmir however, the abundant fields of mustard which are grown for producing mustard oil also yield an incredible food source…mustard greens! In Kashmir, Saag is made with spinach or with mustard greens. I have often thought twice about making Saag because spinach is so expensive, but when you are a forager, this is no issue!

I filled my bag and headed to the store to get a cheap can of tomatoes. As much as I would love to say that I had just got a nice rabbit, I have had no time to hunt lately, so we were stuck using the rest of the free-range chicken in the refrigerator. When I walked up to the cash register with my on-a-budget purchase consisting of a can of tomatoes and a cheap beer, the woman next to me inquired “What’s for dinner?” I looked at my “ingredients” and chuckled. She continued “It’s just that I am a chef, so I am always interested in what people are making…pasta?” she guessed.  I replied “actually,” pausing to lift my bag of greens, “I just gathered up a whole bunch of wild mustard greens and I am going to make a traditional Kashmiri curry tonight!” The woman was certainly not anticipating this response and replied with excitement “Wow! Those are beautiful. I can’t believe how vibrant green they are! Where on Earth did you find those?” I took a look back in the bag and realized that she was completely right. These greens seemed to glow compared to the lettuce, spinach, etc. I had seen around the store! I replied with a grin “Once you learn to identify them, there’s food growing everywhere!”

That night I blanched and pureed the leaves, sautéed them up with tomato, onion, garam masala, turmeric, cumin, coriander, etc. and made a batch of the best Saag I have ever cooked! My girl and I cleaned our plates with big smiles.

The next day we had Saag again for lunch…it was just as good, if not better the second day!

The following week I was out walking the dog near another mustard patch. The bright yellow blossoms moved in waves with the breeze and that is when I noticed them. A group of three Asian foragers were happily browsing the patch with bags full of greens. I approached the oldest man and asked if he was after the mustard greens. He replied with a chuckle and a sign that he didn’t speak English. I signed to the mustard growing beside me, and pretended to sautee and eat it, then pointed back to him. He laughed nodded his head, pulled a handful of leaved from his bag and gestured that he was indeed going to eat them. I replied with gesture and words that “I eat them too!” and promptly picked and ate a leaf with a grin. The man was pleased…so was I. This is one of my favorite things about foraging. Here we are, two guys who can’t understand a word from each other, yet we can relate beyond cultures, and beyond language, over our common love for harvesting and eating the bounties of California’s wild side!

Thistle, mustard, minor’s lettuce, chic weed, lambs quarter, dandelion…and so much more are perfect for harvesting right now. I hope to see you out there!

Keep the old ways alive!

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