I have fallen deeply in love with mustard greens. Spicy Japanese mustard greens, to be precise.

It didn't happen overnight. At first, the attraction was superficial and pragmatic: I was looking for edible splashes of purple to add to the front-yard garden I was planting. I wanted shades of purple that would harmonize with the dark plum trim on my house. "Red Giant" and the milder "Osaka Purple," two Japanese mustard varieties commonly available as transplants in local nurseries, fit my parameters perfectly.

I watched as the little narrow-leafed seedlings developed into big, bold, billowy folds of purple and green. I wasn't sure they would measure up tastewise to my favorite cool-weather greens, spinach and Swiss chard, but it didn't matter. They were gorgeous, and mustard seed is cheap.

That was about three or four years ago. Since then, I've learned a thing or two. Although mustard will never replace spinach and Swiss chard on my fresh-from-the-garden kitchen dance card, I have come to appreciate the spicy allure of this cruciferous cabbage cousin. Compared with other leafy greens in the cole or Brassica family (kale, collard, turnip greens), mustard greens are fiery, especially when fully mature and raw (think Dijon mustard), and they're a great way to bring some heat into the cool-weather garden.

Snip a leaf from a mature "Red Giant," hand it to an unsuspecting garden visitor and watch his eyes go wide with surprise as he starts to chew. At first the flavor is peppery and green, but then it builds to a pungent burn that lingers briefly on the tongue and then sweeps upward into the sinuses. The words that follow are usually along the lines of: "What IS that!? Some kind of wasabi?"

Well, yeah, sort of. Wasabi and mustard greens are in the same family.

And speaking of wasabi, did you already know this? Much of the green pasty stuff you get in Japanese restaurants and the powder you can buy at the grocery store isn't made from actual wasabi. Real wasabi requires special growing conditions that make it really expensive, so mostly what you will find when you go looking for it is a mix of horseradish, mustard powders and other flavorings. I'm not sure I've ever tasted real, fresh wasabi grated from the root of the plant, although I'd like to. It is said to be a much gentler burn than the horseradish version. And in case you were wondering, horseradish is also a mustard cousin. It's a big family.

rstudebaker@statesman.com; 445-3946

Mustard Green Wraps

This dish makes good use of several vegetables, greens and herbs that are common in a cool-weather garden in our area. It's also a great way to take care of leftover meats. I especially like this recipe made with leftover pork roast, but you also could make it with pork loin or chops. Chicken or grilled fish or shrimp would also work. For a vegan version, substitute sautéed cremini mushrooms or tofu. No wasabi needed; you'll get plenty of heat from the uncooked greens.

Canola or grapeseed oil for sautéeing

1 to 11/2 cups cooked pork roast, chopped

2 scallions, chopped

1-2 cloves garlic, mashed and chopped

1 Tbsp. tamari sauce

1 Tbsp. chopped cilantro

2 or 3 large 'Red Giant' mustard leaves, slightly wilted (see notes)

About a cup (or more for more crunch) of broccoli stems and carrots, peeled and cut into match sticks of various lengths (see notes)

1 scallion, sliced in three long strands (optional)

Salt and pepper to taste

Dipping Sauce (recipe below)

Add a splash of oil to a hot, heavy-bottom skillet or wok. Add pork and sauté for a few minutes or until it starts to brown. Stir in chopped scallions and garlic and continue sautéing for a couple of minutes more. Add tamari sauce and cilantro and cook for another minute. Remove from heat, pour into a bowl and set aside.

Trim and remove thick mustard stems. Set aside. Following the length of the center stem, spoon on pork mixture and then place broccoli and carrot sticks beside pork. Place a strand of scallion if using. Fold leaf in half over filling and then gently but firmly, starting with the filled side, roll into a tube. Slice in half or into thirds and serve with Dipping Sauce.

Notes: I use long, skinny broccoli stems from the tender side shoots of my broccoli plants. If you're using store-bought broccoli, you might need to peel the tough outer skin before slicing into skinny strips. To wilt mustard leaves, lay on parchment paper in a warm, dry area for about an hour. They become limp and pliable with no need for blanching, which would kill the wasabi buzz you get from eating them raw. In a pinch, if you can't find the flat, purple Japanese mustard greens, you can try whatever spicy mustard variety is available for a similar taste experience. But good luck trying to get a neat wrap out of a curly mustard green.

- Renee Studebaker

Dipping Sauce

1/2 cup tamari sauce

2 tsp. apple cider vinegar

2 tsp. honey

2 tsp. sesame oil (or more to taste)

Combine ingredients in a small mixing bowl. Taste and adjust amount of sesame oil to your liking.

- R.S.

Pickled Mustard Greens

Asian cooks are masters of the art of pickling, and pickled greens and other vegetables are often served as an accompaniment to spicy meat dishes.

Try these with spicy grilled baby-back ribs.

2 cups water

2 Tbsp. sugar

1 Tbsp. salt

11/2 cups white vinegar

11/2 lb. Japanese mustard greens

2 or 3 serrano chiles, split lengthwise

1 clove garlic, sliced in quarters

In a small saucepan, combine water, sugar, salt and vinegar. Bring to a boil over high heat, then remove from heat. Cool slightly. Using a paring knife, trim stems of washed mustard greens from leaves.

Cut stems into 2-inch pieces and place in a 1-quart measuring cup. Coarsely chop enough greens to fill the measuring cup when added to stems and packed down gently. Pack stems, leaves, garlic and chiles into a clean glass 1-quart jar.

Pour hot liquid onto greens, making sure that the greens and stems are completely submerged. Cover and refrigerate for at least 3 days before serving.

- Adapted from Saveur magazine

How to work mustard greens into everyday meals

Use raw leaves on a roast beef sandwich instead of prepared horseradish. Or add a leaf or two to your next blue-cheese burger.

Mix thinly sliced raw greens with a bit of chopped fresh garlic and mayonnaise and serve as a spicy side to pork chops.

Slice into thin strips and add to mixed green salads to add some zip.

For a quick appetizer, cut out squares from leaves and wrap around pieces of prosciutto; spear with toothpicks to serve.

Where to look for Japanese mustard greens

Grocery: Sometimes you can find locally grown 'Red Giant' or 'Osaka Purple' at Wheatsville Food Co-op, 3101 Guadalupe St.

CSA: Depending on what your Community Supported Agriculture farmer is growing, they might turn up (or turnip?) in your allotment.

Farmer's markets: Again, depends on what area farmers choose to grow, but you can sometimes find a bundle of mustard greens among the collards, chard and kale in early spring.

How to grow your own

Japanese mustard greens aren't just beautiful in the garden, they're tough and fairly easy to grow. At my house, a patch of mature 'Red Giants' weathered the record-breaking hard freezes this winter. They also hold fairly well in warm weather and seem to resist bolting (going to seed) longer than other varieties I've tried. But hey, even if your mustard bolts, you can try collecting the seed to make homemade mustard.

Seeds: Packages of 'Red Giant' mustard seed (usually less than $2) and other mustard varieties are easy to find at area nurseries and even at grocery stores that stock vegetable seeds. Other mustard varieties, including curly mustard, are less tolerant of warm temperatures and might bolt sooner.

Transplants: Starter plants of various mustard greens are usually available at nurseries in advance of fall and spring planting times.

Planting: In fall, winter (when mild) and/or spring, sow seeds in a bed amended with plenty of organic compost. If growth stalls, side-dress with more compost, then water in. Harvest leaves as needed by pinching off at the base; new leaves will keep sprouting from the base until the plant is ready to go to seed (usually when weather starts to warm up.) Or plant in a container with a good quality organic potting mix and set on a sunny balcony. Mustards like full sun or part sun. Part sun is best in warmer weather.

Why are mustard greens so spicy?

According to food science writer Harold McGee ('On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen'), the kick in spicy greens is part of a complex defense system. In nonscientific terms, when we bite them, they bite back with the release of stored irritants that burn our mouths and our noses. Growing conditions and cooking methods affect the intensity and balance of chemical irritants. Drought-stressed greens, for example, usually store more chemicals. Long, slow cooking of mustard greens in liquid reduces the pungent, wasabi-like bite and mellows any bitterness. However, says McGee, quick cooking of some mustard types 'minimizes their hot pungency, but preserves the intense bitterness.'

More mustard tips

Strong spices such as ginger, chiles and curry can stand up to and complement strong mustard greens. Sweet additions like winter squash or sweet potato are also good complements. Ingredients like butter, cream and even mayonnaise meld with and help mellow the assertive flavors of the greens.

Mustard greens can be pickled, stored in the fridge and used as a spicy condiment or side dish. (See recipe)

Mustard seeds can be collected and used to season meats and other dishes, or they can be ground into powder and turned into spicy brown mustard, much spicier than American yellow mustard, which is made from a mild mustard green.

If you want the good nutrients of mustard greens (antioxidant vitamins E, C and A; and many minerals, including magnesium and folate) but can't stand the spicy mustard flavor, try blanching the leaves in boiling water, followed by a dunk in cold water. This will remove some of the spiciness before you proceed with your recipe.

— Renee Studebaker