When we first brought our mustard seedlings home, they were petite and unassuming. Planted them in the ground, and given San Francisco’s freakishly warm weather, we soon had curly monsters threatening to swamp the house. Naturally we set about consuming them as fast as we could.
Harvested an entire meal’s amount to make Punjab’s famous ‘sarson ka saag’, which means ‘greenish pulpy thing made out of mustard’. It was good, but made not a whit of difference in the amount of curly monsters in the garden.
Soon we were eating sarson ka rice, sarson ka pasta, sarson ka…everything.
On the way, I learnt an important lesson about cooking mustard greens that the Punjabi chefs learnt thousands of years ago. Unless you cook and puree the mustards, the curls in the leaves — which are quite tough, by the way — will interlock and will not separate, and you either get a mouthful of mustards all clumped together, or you get none at all. Pureeing after cooking makes them luscious and even. So here is the basic technique for the Punjabi sarson ka saag, and then my other variations.
Sarson ka saag
Step 1: is the most important:boil and puree.
Rinse, roughly chop a bunch of mustard greens. Put them in a pot with a quarter cup water, salt, half an onion, roughly chopped, two green chilies, roughly chopped, and a quarter cup chopped cilantro. Bring to a boil, cover, simmer and cook for about fifteen minutes, or until the mustards are no longer bright green. Cool for a few minutes and puree in a blender, although there is no need to make it completely smooth.
Step 2: Seasoning
I couldn’t tell you if every villager in Punjab uses this set of seasonings, but this is what I used, and it was good. I heated two tablespoons of ghee in a small thick bottomed pan on medium-high. Then put in a teaspoon of cumin seeds and 3-4 cloves of garlic, minced. Also half a teaspoon or more of red chili powder. Once they sizzle and the garlic looks cooked (not browned), put in two tablespoons of besan (chickpea flour) and stir. I think the more typical ingredient here is cornmeal so if you have that, use a quarter cup of that instead. Allow the besan (or cornmeal) to roast in the oil for a few minutes. Then empty the seasoning into the mustard puree and stir.
Step 3: Simmer a little longer
Check for salt and add more if needed. Simmer a little longer to meld the flavors and fully cook the besan. Sprinkle some lemon juice over the top (inauthentic ingredient alert). Serve with roti/chapati.
Sarson ka pasta…bucatini with mustard greens
Step 1: boil and puree
Here I boiled the greens with just a quarter onion and some salt. After about fifteen minutes of simmering, I roughly pureed them in a blender. Keep it aside.
Step 2: Seasonings
For the oil, I used about four tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil. Heat it in a large pan on medium. Without waiting for it to heat, put in four large cloves of garlic, minced; three anchovies from a jar; and a few sprinkles of cracked red pepper. The anchovies, as they cook, will melt into the sauce, and add a delicious umami, proteiny flavor. Wait till they sizzle; break up the anchovies with a wooden spoon; then empty the pureed greens into it. Simmer gently, stirring, for a few minutes
Step 3: Pasta
Meanwhile, get a big pot of salted water to boil; once it boils, put in half a pound of bucatini (this is enough for a dinner for two). Wait till it is almost done to al dente, then fish out the pasta with a pasta spoon and put it into the greens along with a few good sized ladles of the pasta water. Use your judgment here — if the greens aren’t saucy enough, add a little more pasta water. Stir nicely to break up the clumps of mustards to combine with the pasta water and turn it into a sauce. Remember the sauce has to coat the pasta, not remain in clumps at the bottom. Stir to cover the pasta with the greens, cover the pot and simmer for just a minute or two. Turn off heat; pour some fresh XVOO on the top, and parmesan shavings if you like, and serve.
This makes a wonderfully light green sauce for the pasta that looks as nutritious as it, in reality, is.