I am a condiment lover. Yet, if push came to shove, there are few seasonings I could not live without at a stove.
Mustard is definitely not one of them, however. I am, in fact, so hopelessly addicted to that tangy infusion, I resist tying on an apron unless a jar is plainly within reach.
How mustard came to be a substance of such authority in my life, I cannot say. Like most of middle America during the 1930s and '40s, I was raised on hot dogs slathered with yellow mustard but I never recalled the tincture with any particular pleasure or enthusiasm.
I know full well that I didn't sample any mustard that bore true savor (or was not made in the United States) until a thoughtful friend, knowing I relished the prose of M.F.K. Fisher, brought me an enormous crock of the real thing from Dijon, France, one of the author's literary landscapes.
I remember being so impressed with the wrapping--all seals and embossings--that I let a month slip by before I scraped wax off the cork and inserted a pinky into the jar. But what a surprise awaited my tongue once I did. That this pungent, highly aromatic mustard could be even distantly related to the muddy dressing in my refrigerator was an anathema to which I am still unreconciled.
That's how I met mustard.
Good fortune brought Fisher into my life not long after. We met shortly before my first trip to Europe and her umpteenth return there. In a moment of rash mutual admiration, we agreed to meet in France that summer. The planned rendezvous colored my entire travel itinerary. Instead of leisurely enjoying my role as an American in Paris, I felt impelled to travel every provincial town and hamlet that the remarkable writer lovingly described in "The Art Of Eating."
Exchanging the good smells of Left Bank bistros for gas-polluted auto routes, I soon found myself on the way to Burgundy in a rented Renault with an unfamiliar transmission and a manual printed in a language I barely understood. By nightfall I was lost; driving on the shoulder of the road to avoid being hit by hostile Gallic motorists because I could not turn the headlights on.
In desperation I took the first exit, which led to a muddy towpath traveled mainly by oxen, sheep and a flock of noisy geese. I followed the geese actually (at a discreet distance) until they made their way to a primitive barn/garage where they bedded down for the night. I was not so lucky.
I queried a puzzled young man in overalls in fractured French. But before he could attempt an answer, I sneezed. Then promptly sneezed again. I could not help myself for the air was dense with such a heady aroma it had a galvanic effect on my sinuses.
"Moutarde? " I cried, sniffing air like a bloodhound.
"Yes, mustard," he answered in near-perfect English.
As you may have gathered, my car was on the outskirts of the fabled city whose motto moult me tarde reputedly gave the condiment its name. If I liked mustard before, I was hooked forever by the first sneeze-making whiff.
Dijon-style mustard (or one of its American-made descendants) is an absolute prerequisite in the following recipe. For the deep, intense flavor holds the diverse elements of the dish like cheese and garlic in line.
BELGIAN PORK CHOPS
4 loin pork chops, 1 1/2 inches thick
1 tablespoon oil
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
1/4 pound finely shredded Gruyere or Jarlsberg cheese
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
2 tablespoons whipping cream or half and half
1/2 teaspoon minced garlic
1 1/2 tablespoons finely chopped shallot
1 egg yolk
1/4 cup dry white wine
2 tablespoons water
Dash ground allspice
Slash any fat around meat with knife. Season chops to taste with salt and pepper.
Heat oil and butter in heavy skillet. Add chops. Cook over medium heat until brown on one side, about 10 minutes. Turn chops over and cook until brown and cooked through.
Combine cheese, mustard, cream, garlic, shallot and egg yolk in small bowl. Mix well. Heat broiling unit.
Spread tops and sides of chops with cheese mixture. Place in shallow baking dish. Broil until tops are golden, about 2 minutes.
Pour off fat from skillet. Add wine and water. Heat to boiling, scraping bottom and sides of pan. Add allspice. Pour over chops. Sprinkle with parsley. Makes 2 to 4 servings.
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English mustard is usually sold as a powder, and Colman's is one of the best. A fish 'n' chips recipe that I hugely admire is doubly tasty because it combines both English and Dijon produce in its aromatic composition.
BATTERED-UP FISH AND SHRIMP
2 teaspoons dry mustard
1 teaspoon grated nutmeg
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
4 eggs, separated
2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
1 cup beer
1 1/2 pounds flounder fillets, cut into 3-inch-long strips
1 pound uncooked shrimp, shelled, deveined
1/2 cup lemon juice
1/2 cup white wine vinegar
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
Tartar sauce or malt vinegar, optional
Combine 1 cup flour, dry mustard, nutmeg and 1/2 teaspoon salt in medium bowl. Combine egg yolks, Dijon mustard and beer in another bowl. Add to flour mixture and whisk until smooth. Refrigerate covered 8 hours.
Place flounder and shrimp in bowl. Whisk together 1 cup oil, lemon juice, vinegar, remaining salt and pepper. Pour over fish. Refrigerate, covered, 4 hours.
Beat egg whites until stiff but not dry. Fold into cold batter. Remove seafood from marinade. Pat dry with paper towels. Dust seafood with flour.
Heat 1 inch oil in large heavy skillet over medium-high heat. Dip seafood into batter with slotted spoon. Fry few pieces at a time in hot oil until golden brown on both sides. Drain on paper towels. Keep warm in 275 degree oven while frying remainder. Serve at once with tartar sauce or malt vinegar. Makes 4 to 6 servings.