There are many foods that I have despised in this life. One poorly prepared dish, preconceptions passed from a friend, or even just the first glance at a food in a poor context could destroy a reputation for years in my mind. To this day there are still some foods that will cause turmoil if I see them set before me. But I’ve come to learn that it is always worth revisiting a vegetable in a new way, trying a new spice, or eating a new part of an animal. Even the food you think you’ll always hate can shine in the right context.
I remember my first encounter with mustard greens vividly. I was an intern working at an investment company in Boston and our department was out for lunch. I tried to be cool and order a unique sounding chicken sandwich–I can’t remember the name. I do remember it had mustard greens on it. At the time, I had no idea what mustard greens were, but hey, I liked mustard, so I didn’t think much of it.
The first bite revealed a peculiar bitterness I had not encountered before in a sandwich. Then my nostrils burned and my eyes watered. It was like I was being tortured by my lunch suddenly. I tried not to show it in front of my coworkers who I did not yet know well enough to scream and shout and cry in front of. I bottled it up and pretended the worst sandwich of my life was fine.
As I’ve grown to appreciate more and more vegetables, especially focused on what local farmers offer, I’ve found mustard greens crossing my path more and more. CSAs with bags overflowing with mustard greens made me roll my eyes. Salad mixes of tender lettuces and baby bok choi were tainted with mustard greens in my eyes. But I always muscled them down.
Yeah, Mustard Greens are healthy, But…
When you look into the nutritional value of mustard greens, they are surely impressive. High in vitamins, minerals, fiber, etc.. They are in the same class as some of the celebrated greens out there, like the almighty fad-friendly and frankly quite delicious kale. But side by side with kale, mustard greens is not especially impressive. Kale wins with Vitamin K, fiber, and on and on. Seeing this, I asked myself why anyone would ever even grow mustard greens when kale is readily available and not that hard to grow? The flavor of mustard greens is often so bitter and spicy, kale is delicious. What is the point?
Ah ha! Mustard Greens Grow So Well
When I looked at our garden beds last year I immediately understood the appeal of mustard greens. We had planted a greens mix which included some red mustard greens, and low and behold, they dominated the garden early on. They grew so well and so quickly. We had bundles of the greens before most other crops were even a few inches tall. They outpace weeds and therefore minimize their impact. Mustard greens, it seems, are a farmer’s friend! Quick nutrition to share in early summer, cover crop superpowers in the off season, and hey… maybe they won’t taste so bad if you use them right?
Using mustard greens as an ingredient
We found a way to really embrace the mustard greens while also completely enjoying our dinner. Like many ingredients out there, I think mustard greens are best enjoyed when they are balanced out. They are a popular Asian ingredient, which makes sense. Asian cooking often employs a variety of flavors to be balanced out in a complex, immensely flavorful dish. An obvious mainstream example is sweet and sour chicken, but how about an authentic Thai dish? The sweet, spicy, sour, bitter, and salty elements come together in concert in amazing ways. You’d never take a swig of stinky fish sauce, but Pad Thai without fish sauce is flat and uninteresting.
So with all this in mind, we took inspiration from a recipe from a favorite food blog, The Food In My Beard, for Green Macaroni and Cheese. His recipe is fantastic and has proven to be a real crowd pleaser, but we’ve pushed it to new depths with 100% extra sharp cheddar and my old pal mustard greens. Mustard greens bring spice and bitter to the already aromatic, sweet and salty dish. With mustard greens and a few other modifications, the recipe has become a dynamo of flavor that I can’t believe I love this much.
It works as a side or main dish, and you can enjoy it hot or cold. And it’s immensely healthier than standard mac and cheese, without sacrificing any of that gooey, fatty, cheesy goodness. If you are on the fence about mustard greens or just want something different, check this one out!
Mustard Greens Macaroni and Cheese [with gluten free adaptation option]
1 lb elbow macaroni (regular, whole grain, or gluten free all work well)
1/2 lb carrots, shredded
1 lb sausage cut into bite size pieces (optional but amazing)
- Two scary fistfuls of mustard greens (about 1/4 lb)
- 2 stalks broccoli roughly chopped up for adding to food processor
- plenty of basil (1 tablespoon dry)
- plenty of oregano (1 tablespoon dry)
- Enough olive oil to make a smooth sauce of the above green stuff, at least 2 tablespoons
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 onion, diced as small as you can
- 10 garlic scapes if available, diced as small as you can
- 3 cloves garlic (if not using scapes), minced
- 4 cups milk
- 1.5 pounds extra sharp cheddar, shredded (note that you’ll reserve 1/4 lb of this for topping)
Note on making this Gluten Free: To make this dish gluten free, you simply need to use gluten free macaroni which is widely available, and make sure any sausage you use (if any) is gluten free (some sausage isn’t actually GF, believe it or not).
- Lightly oil a 9×13 dish and prepare all ingredients as indicated above. You can preheat to 350 F now if you want, but some of these steps take a little while so you can also wait if you want to save energy.
- In a decent sized pot suitable for boiling a gallon or so of water, boil water and cook macaroni per package directions. Drain and put macaroni back into the empty pot you boiled it in, and set aside (making sure not to put over a hot burner).
- Make the green sauce by combining all green sauce ingredients in food processor, pulsing in small batches and adding olive oil to make a smooth sauce.
- Heat 2 tablespoons oil over medium heat in a saucepan and add the onion, cooking for about 3 minutes until tender.
- Add garlic/garlic scapes to onions and cook another minute.
- Add the milk to the saucepan and let it get hot, stirring frequently to avoid scalding.
- Preheat oven to 350 F if you haven’t already.
- Once milk is hot, add 1 1/4 lb of the shredded cheese one handful at a time, stirring and allowing to melt between handfuls. Make sure the cheese gets melted and smoothly incorporates into the milky mixture.
- If using meat, cook it now in a pan over medium heat.
- In the pot with the macaroni in it, mix everything (except the reserved 1/4 of cheese) together. This means you mix: the cooked macaroni, shredded carrot, chopped and cooked meat, green sauce, and cheese sauce.
- Spread the mixture in the prepared 9×13 pan and cook in the preheated oven for 20 minutes.
- Sprinkle the remaining 1/4 pound of shredded cheese on top of the mac and cheese and cook for another 5 minutes, or until the top is browned and looks great.
Serve warm as main dish or as a side. We find it can work as a cold dish too, like a pasta salad, but beware that it will hold its shape and should probably be broken up a bit by rough stirring if served cold so you don’t freak people out too much.