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Mustard Greens--More Than Just a Pretty Valley Flower
Part 1 of 2: Picking Mustard Greens
by Cookie Curci
For many years, my Italian-American grandparents worked the Santa Clara valley land; they have been prune ranchers, cherry growers, farmers and cannery workers. The cuisine they prepared and enjoyed was essentially food grown on their land. Some of their traditional foods came from the hills and orchards that surrounded the valley. Much of what they harvested they ate or preserved. Olives were cured for eating and pressed for oil, the oil was used for cooking and to preserve dried pork sausages, tomatoes were dried in the valley sun and the deep green leaves of the mustard greens were gathered at the peek of the season as a tasty main course.
Longtime valley residents are familiar with the picturesque yellow flowers of the mustard green and how it once grew so plentifully in our fruit orchards and along the hillsides. They remember how it graced the orchard lands as a beautiful ground cover and how it painted our landscape with glorious, bright, sun-colored, blossoms.
For those who enjoyed eating them, the pungent mustard greens were a fresh source of vitamin A. Valley ranchers generously allowed residents on to their land to pick the cherished greens. After a spring rain, my family and I were among the many mustard green enthusiasts to beat a path to the muddy orchards to gather our share of the bitter greens.
Another free growing food was the wild quince that grew in the foothills surrounding the valley. Every year, Mom trekked to the area to pick baskets of the sweet, green, fruit to make her jelly. Mushroom hunting was another all-day pastime that took us to the edges of the valley in our search for huge growing tree mushrooms. Tall trees also sprouted bushels of mistletoe in December and January.
"Hunting" for a good mustard green patch 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.
I can remember how local families would gather all together early in the morning, clad in knee-high galoshes and bundled in warm clothing, we’d spend hours picking our favorite springtime greens. After an exhausting morning of gathering the mustard greens, the tired, but contented, crew of pickers returned home-- our baskets and bags filled to the brim with greens and our shoes and boots covered in a thick layer of orchard mud.
Once we got home, we turned our kitchens into a process factory. Huge kettles were set on the stove; the mustard greens were washed in the sink to make sure all traces of the orchard mud were removed. Then the greens were cleaned and cut and placed into a pot of boiling water. The boiled greens were drained and then sautéed in olive oil, garlic and dried red pepper. The aroma was heavenly, at least to an Italian kid like myself, who loves mustard greens prepared Italian style. The remaining greens were boiled and frozen for another dinner.
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