Cooking is not rocket science: Choose your ingredients, apply heat, eat and enjoy. It is easy to be distracted or intimidated by seemingly complicated recipes, but there are little things — sauces, pestos, relishes, garni — that can enliven and reframe basic preparations, freeing up time and mental bandwidth for the appreciation of eating, entertaining and living.
With the promise of al fresco cuisine soon replacing the winter weight of meat and potatoes, I propose an antidote of sorts, framed as a deconstruction.
At its most mundane, mustard is a simple paste that plays well with others — vegetables, meat, seafood. The spice itself is a complex, volatile mix of bitterness and heat, usually tamed and tempered by acid (vinegar or wine) and sweetness (again wine or other sweeteners — sugar, honey) in concert with herbal aromatics.
Prepared mustard, even in its coarsest grind, is still a relatively smooth paste. Once upon a time, there was a culinary vogue for pickled mustard seeds (“poor man’s caviar”), which will serve as our nominally exotic jumping-off point.
To make such a thing, yellow mustard seeds are plumped repeatedly in boiling water to remove most of the bitterness. The problem here is that this repeated poaching also removes a lot of the complexity.
A quick pickle in a brine spiced with bay, allspice, coriander, black and red peppers and sweetened vinegar brings back some of it. The spiced and brined seeds are toothsome and crunchy little flavor bombs, but that identifiable mustard flavor — the result of “blooming” dried, ground mustard in cold water — is lost. By allowing ground mustard to sit for 10 minutes, the complex volatile oils and aromatics that heating would destroy are restored.
With the addition of some of the raw mustard paste, married to walnut oil (other nut oils or even a mild olive oil would do) and minced aromatics (parsley, shallots, chives and tarragon), we end up with a loose but gloriously usable dressing or relish.
I admit, this may sound overly complicated, but the process is quick and, with planning, the pickled seeds and relish can become a welcomed staple that will turn the simplest dish into something special.
Spoon some over bean salads (particularly green French or du Puy lentils), grilled or steamed vegetables (avocados, leeks, asparagus, cauliflower, grilled peppers) or hard-cooked eggs. Combine any of the above atop a bed of greens with grilled or seared sausage, pork tenderloin or chicken, fish, shrimp or scallops, and finish with a dollop for a satisfying dinner. It works just as well dressing a sandwich for culinary success.
Pickled Mustard Seed Relish
This recipe makes about ¾ cup pickled mustard seeds, which will keep refrigerated for up to a month. The relish also makes about ¾ cup for immediate use. It is excellent as a dressing for grilled or roasted meat, seafood or vegetables. The photo shows a topping of room-temperature dressed French lentils (“French potato salad”) with sliced and seared saucisson l’ail (garlic sausage). Substitute roasted, seared or grilled salmon, scallops or shrimp for the sausage and finish with a spoonful or two of this relish for an easy spring or summer meal.
Pickled Mustard Seeds
- ¼ cup yellow mustard seeds
- 1 tablespoon mustard powder
- ½ cup white wine vinegar
- 1 tablespoon sugar
(raw or brown or honey)
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1½ teaspoon black peppercorns
- ½ teaspoon coriander seeds
- 3 allspice berries
- 1 bay leaf
- ⅛ teaspoon red pepper flakes
Pickled Mustard Seed Relish
- ½ cup walnut oil
- 2 scallions, green part only or six chives, chopped fine
- 1 tablespoon parsley
- 1 tablespoon fresh tarragon leaves, chopped fine
- 1 shallot chopped fine
- 1 tablespoon balsamic or
- 2 to 4 tablespoons pickled mustard seeds
1. For the pickled seeds: Soak mustard powder in ¼ cup cold water for at least 10 minutes and reserve. Meanwhile, place mustard seeds in a small non-reactive pot, cover with cold water and bring to a quick boil. Once boiling, remove from heat and strain the seeds, discarding the water. Repeat this process twice more; strain and reserve the seeds in a small sealable jar.
2. In the same pot, combine vinegar, sugar, salt, peppercorns, coriander seeds, allspice berries, bay leaf and red pepper flakes. Bring to a boil and remove from the heat. Add dissolved mustard powder and water.
3. Pour strained pickling over reserved mustard seeds just to cover. Let cool, cover and refrigerate overnight. When ready to use, spoon seeds from the brine and strain excess liquid. Seeds will keep up to a month refrigerated.
4. For the dressing: Combine the ingredients in a small bowl and correct seasoning with salt and freshly cracked black pepper and a bit more vinegar or pickling brine. Spoon over warm beans, cold or grilled vegetables, boiled potatoes, roasted, grilled or seared pork, chicken or seafood.