Wild mustard greens frequent my table every winter and spring in a variety of dishes ("Spring Curry," June 9). But until recently, I had never thought to try gathering the seeds from the dead-standing mustard plants that abound in the fields of the North Coast in late summer and fall. Once I realized the potential of this harvest, I started using it in all kinds of dishes (most often with an Indian flair).
The easiest way to locate a patch of wild mustard is to find it when it is green and topped with vibrant yellow flowers in late spring and early summer. When you do, remember this location for later in the year. However, in late summer and continuing through the fall, when dried tan-brown stalks are all that remains of this plant, they are still quite easy to identify and locate en masse. I suggest the gravel bars of the Mad River, though most every fallow open field from the Arcata Bottoms to Ferndale will also have plenty to go around. Look for a patch of dozens (sometimes hundreds) of dried stalks clustered together. These will be no larger in diameter at the base than about ¼ inch. The seed heads of this plant somewhat resemble wild rye (I used them to garnish the dish in the accompanying photo). Crush the seed pods that line the tips of each branch in your hand and you will release hundreds of red-brown seeds no larger than a pencil tip (along with the chaff from the desiccated seed pod).
The easiest way I have found to gather a sufficient supply of seeds is to break the tips of the plants at the base of the branches and carefully place them in a bucket. Even excessive shaking of the seedpods will cause them to burst and you will spill half of the bounty to the ground. After a few hundred seeding tips are in the bucket (which will take you about 15 minutes to locate and gather in most fields), begin crushing. Crush and agitate every seedpod you can between your hands. They are fragile so no gloves or tools are necessary. Next, remove all large portions of stems and chaff. Don't worry about the massive amount of small seedpods and stems — there's a quick solution to that mess. Simply pour the contents of your bucket through a standard pasta strainer with a pot or second bucket below to capture the seeds. Repeat this step twice. Next, step outside with the two vessels. Slowly pour the sifted contents from one container into the other while blowing air through the stream of falling material. You will quickly learn to adjust how strongly to blow through to get the heavier seeds falling into the bucket and the lighter chaff floating away. Repeat this step two or three times and you will be left with a beautiful and clean pile of wild mustard seeds.
Aloo matar (Hindi for potatoes and peas) is a standard north Indian recipe served in every household. I first fell in love with this meal while enjoying a two-month trip through north India in my early 20s. There are variations to the recipe; some maintain that there should be no onion or garlic involved, while others argue both are essential. I love onion and garlic so they are always in my aloo matar along with the spicy and flavorful mustard seeds. These little guys not only add flavor but also a texture not unlike tobiko, or flying fish roe, in sushi. You can, of course, just go buy a bag of these seeds from any Indian or Pakistani market but I promise that you will enjoy this meal 10 times more if you can share some laughs over the story of gathering and processing these tasty little seeds with friends and family. Plus it's a great excuse to get out with loved ones, get some exercise, enjoy the beauty of the North Coast and try something new.
1 bay leaf,
½ diced onion
2 cloves garlic, minced
3 teaspoons mustard seeds
2 teaspoons garam masala,
1 teaspoon turmeric
1 ½ teaspoons cumin seed,
1 teaspoon coriander
Cayenne pepper to taste
Salt to taste
6 Yukon gold potatoes, cut into ½- to 1-inch cubes
1 cup frozen peas,
1 tablespoon cream (optional)
3 tablespoons vegetable oil or ghee
Heat the oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add all the spices, onion, bay leaf, mustard seeds and potatoes. Sauté, keeping the spices moving around so they don't stick to the bottom of the pan. You can reduce heat and cover the pan to speed up the process, but check and stir the contents often to keep from burning the spices. When the potatoes are nearly cooked through, add the peas and garlic. Stir the dish during the last stages of cooking to be sure that the peas are not only coated with spices, but simmered a bit to absorb the flavors. Finally, add the cream if desired (this will add a richness to the finished dish). Now serve it up to your family and friends if you are generous enough to share.