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GARDEN FRESH : Mizuna: The Next Arugula

September 02, 1993|SYLVIA THOMPSON

Beauty is in the beholder's eye, and sometimes in the mouth. What joy when it's in both! This was never more so than in the venerable Asian mustard, mizuna.

Mizuna's glossy leaves are dark-green faced with silvery white. Stalks--long as a peacock's feather--are water-green and reed-slender. Mizuna grows in a rosette of a mound that might be young lace-leaf maples or hart's-tongue ferns. In the kitchen, when a few mizuna are heaped on a lustrous old towel, I half-close my eyes and imagine them brushed on a glazed bowl or embroidered in silk. The mustard has been cultivated for so many centuries in Japan that in the rest of Asia, the vegetable is regarded as Japanese. Another Japanese name for mizuna is kyona-- greens from Kyoto, the ancient capital of the empire. Mizuna translates from the Japanese as water or juicy vegetable.

As for the eating, mizuna's flavor could be hot and coarse. Most mustards are. Mizuna's texture could be fibrous. Most mustards are. But the lacy leaves taste tangy--rather a blend of spinach, mustard and sorrel shoots--with an underlying sweetness. The stalks are also sweet, tender and crisp. And when the plant begins producing seeds, the flowers, too, are sweet.

In my experience, no other mustard is as pleasing to the eye and to the palate. Peacock kales are rivals in form, but the tenderest is not comparable in either texture or flavor.

You can have mizuna in the garden the year-round. Although mizuna prefers cool weather, it is extremely tolerant of heat, cold and rain. It won't go to seed in 90-degree summers, and in a cold frame the leaves have been harvested through sub-freezing winters.

If you sow mizuna in spring's cool, you can begin picking leaves in four to six weeks. Sown in autumn in temperate climates, the seedlings may grow more slowly, but they will grow through winter and into spring. Mizuna is biennial, so it's not supposed to go to seed until the second year. But mustards have a mind of their own, and it may send up flowers in April if sown in autumn. After flowering, the leaves do become hot and chewy.

To sow mizuna for winter where it's cold, take a calendar and count back two months and two weeks before the first expected frost, and sow seeds where they'll grow during that period. They'll be lushest under the shelter of a cold frame.

Mustards do best in light, moisture-retentive soil--amend clay with organic matter such as old straw (lug it in garbage bags from a stable) and compost. You may want to fling a handful of blood meal over the soil and fork it in. Thin seedlings to about nine inches apart in spring and six inches apart for wintering over. Give full sun and water to keep the roots moist.

Mizuna has no pests to speak of past the basic hungry slugs and sometimes flea beetles. A floating row cover will hide mizuna's beauty but protect it from beetles, if they're bad. I had no beetles but my first plant did suffer a bout with mildew. You can usually prevent mildew by not watering the plant's leaves but irrigating the ground and by assuring good air circulation--I'd set mine in a corner close to the house. So place your mizunas in the open. And when you place them, since you can harvest tender leaves from a plant as long as 10 months or so, let three to four years pass before you return mizunas to the same place (this inhibits soil-born problems).

If your mizuna needn't be under cover, its featheriness is delightful combined with the small white daisies of feverfew--especially the sort with chartreuse leaves, the golden buttons of tansy, or fine daisies of German chamomile--all have an airy appearance.

You can harvest leaves at any stage--younger leaves are the more tender and mild, of course. To harvest, treat the plant as a cut-and-come-again: Use scissors or a knife to cut leaves at the base from the outside of the plant in, or cut a whole small head, leaving the roots so new shoots will come. Pick leaves continually and fresh ones will grow.

In Japan, mizuna is often pickled. The leafy parts are salted and finely chopped, then stirred into rice. Stalk pieces are steeped in salt, sugar and rice vinegar for a day or two, then served as a nibble with cold beer.

My favorite use of these elegant leaves is in salads--you too will never tire of finding them amid the lettuces and more mundane whatnots. Remember that eating leaves with your fingers adds immeasurably to the pleasure.

In cooking, as with nearly every leafy green, it's wise to pull the leaves from the stalks and ribs and cook each separately. One will invariably cook faster than the other, and you may not know which will do which. Mizuna is lovely in stir-fries, even though I hate wilting the leaves. And, of course, you can adapt most any mustard greens or cabbage recipe to mizuna.

But because the plants are so generous, the time comes when your thoughts turn to soup. Mine did. Rather than a Japanese-style soup, I swirled in a couple of tart elements to enhance the tangy quality of the leaves.

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