My Italian immigrant grandparents came to the Almaden Valley during the great migration. They were prune ranchers, cherry growers, farmers, and cannery workers. The cuisine they prepared and enjoyed was essentially food grown on their land. Much of what they harvested they ate or preserved. Their favorite food, and the one they held in the highest regard, was the valley’s wild mustard greens plant that grew freely in orchards and along the hillsides.
Mustard greens correct name is Brissica rapa, a member of the Cruciferae family which includes cabbages, broccoli, and turnips. It also includes the mustard varieties that are grown for their tasty leaves, not their seeds. Three varieties of mustard greens produce seeds, which in turn are used in various aspects of cooking. Black mustard seed (Brassica nigra) is the most pungent of the three. Brassica alba, a native to the Mediterranean region, produces large yellow seeds and Brown mustard (Brassica juncea) is the one used to make Dijon-style mustards.
Although native to many regions of the world, it is said that Franciscan Father Serra brought the wild mustard greens to California, planting them as a golden pathway home after his explorations here.
Mustard greens are a fresh source of vitamin A, fat and cholesterol-free, low in sodium and calories, and high in vitamin C. The peppery leaves of the mustard plant are a rich dark green and have a pungent flavor. They belong to the same family of vegetables like collard greens, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, kale.” Hunting” for a wild mustard green patch in the valley takes plenty of skill and know-how. The greens have to be picked at just the right stage of development. Once the blossoms appear the greens are no longer eatable.
During the 1940s and 50s, I remember how local families would gather together early in the morning, after a springtime rain, clad in knee-high galoshes and bundled in warm clothing, we spent hours picking our favorite greens. Looking for crisp young leaves with a rich green color. Rejecting those with yellow or pitted leaves or thick, fibrous stems. Back then, valley ranchers generously allowed residents onto their orchards to pick the greens. After an exhausting morning of gathering the mustard greens, our contented crew of pickers returned home– our baskets and bags filled to the brim with wet greens and our shoes and boots covered in a thick layer of orchard mud.
Once we got home, we turned our kitchens into a processing factory. Huge kettles of water were set on the stove to boil; the mustard greens were washed in the sink to make sure all traces of the orchard mud was removed. Then the greens were cleaned and cut and placed into a pot of boiling water. The cooked greens were drained and then sauteed in olive oil, garlic, and dried red pepper. The aroma was heavenly, at least to Italian-Americans, like myself, who love mustard greens prepared Italian style.
The remaining greens were boiled and frozen in bags for another dinner or kept in sealed bags for a week. On Sundays, when the family gathered at Grandma’s house, the joyful fragrances of freshly cooked mustard greens and simmering tomato sauce permeated the ranch house. On these occasions we waited anxiously to hear grandma call out our favorite words, “Vieni a mangiare.”( come and eat) Before dinner was served, glasses of red wine were raised to our good health along with Papa’s words, ” Salute per cent’anni.” “Good health for 100 years,” the family would echo back. Then, and only then, could the meal begin?
Today, the plentiful prune ranches that graced our valley and offered residents free mustard greens have all but disappeared. The 1960s and 1970s brought microwave cooking to the family kitchen and a full-course dinner is being zapped in a shorter time than it takes to swallow down a pre-dinner cocktail. The bright golden-yellow mustard green flowers that once filled our valley hillsides and orchards are seen now only in sparse patches along the freeways..
Recently, two longtime friends braved the cold weather and muddy orchards to search out a small patch of mustard greens growing in an open field off the busy 101 highway. My friends generously shared their greens with me. A pot of water was quickly set to boil. The mustard greens tossed into my frying pan with a little olive oil, garlic (of course) and dried red peppers. A loaf of French bread was torn into chunks, glasses of Chianti poured, and as we raised our glasses we happily declared:”Salute per cent’ anni”. How comforting to know that good friend, traditional foods, and the flavors of our heritage can still be found – perhaps not in the same abundance as we once knew them, but still here for us to enjoy.
To grow mustard greens at home in your yard, be sure it is in a spot in full sun in rich well-drained soil. Mustard greens are annuals so plant the seeds in early spring, or in mild winter climates. Depending on the variety, the plants range from 2 to 4 feet tall, made up of long delicate light green stems and narrow leaves, with a tuft of yellow flowers on top. Pick before the flowers appear. The wild mustard green is not grown for its seeds but rather for its flavorful leaves. Mustard greens are not for container growing.
By Cookie Curci