Most of us have more than one kind of prepared mustard on the refrigerator door. The jars come into our houses as gifts from journeys taken and as specified by recipe ingredient lists. They tend to hang around a while. No wonder: It's helpful to have something on hand that has an appetizing range, a palette from Tonka-truck yellow to rich ochre-brown and textures that can be heavy with whole seeds or frothy and light.

And most of us have realized that different types are good for different things: Dijon-style or coarse-grain works best for a vinaigrette, Dijon-style or Pommery will best enhance an herb paste for lamb and, depending on the flavors, a French's or a spicy brown or yellow mustard can make a sandwich sing.

Despite the hundreds of varieties of mustards, they share a common source and can be easily categorized.There are three varieties of mustard seeds: Black mustard is by far the most potent and is a prominent ingredient in curries. Brown mustard is used to make most of the pungent prepared mustards in France. And yellow or white mustard, most commonly sold as whole mustard seeds, is quite mild. They have been used for centuries as pickling spices and to flavor sausages and cold cuts. Most prepared mustards in America are made from a combination of black, brown and yellow seeds, resulting in a relatively mild mustard.

Mustard seeds by themselves offer relatively little taste. The pungency forms when the essential oil in the finely ground powder is mixed with a liquid. But grind those seeds into a powder, add water, wine, vinegar or beer, and you have a bowl full of flavor. What type of flavor depends on the type of seeds and how finely those seeds are ground. There are several distinct categories of mustard, each with its own distinct character and use, ranging from common American mustard to Dijon-style, whole-grain, brown and ground mustard powder (see box below).

No matter what type of mustard is called for in a particular recipe, mustard should be used sparingly; its presence should be subtle rather than overpowering. (This is in stark contrast to mustard's role as a condiment.) Knowing which mustard to use in a particular dish plays a crucial role in this.

Each has its proper use. At Equinox restaurant downtown, chef Todd Gray prefers a whole-grain mustard like Pommery, which he swirls into pan sauces for an intense flavor finish.

Chef Ris Lacoste of 1789 restaurant in Georgetown recently featured a lobster tempura with a miso-mustard dipping sauce. And chef Frank Ruta of Palena in Cleveland Park relies on mustard as a flavor enhancer in a number of dishes, notably his signature Stuffed Pig's Ears, which are first dipped into a mixture of strong mustard and egg yolks before being breaded.

Baked Halibut With Lemon-Caper Dijonnaise

4 servings

The delicate flavor of halibut requires a sauce that contains a mild-flavored Dijon-style mustard. Serve the fish and mustard sauce with steamed potatoes and steamed green beans or asparagus.

This recipe is adapted from my cookbook, "A Return to Sunday Dinner" (Multnomah Gifts, 2003):

For the lemon-caper dijonnaise:

3/4 cup mayonnaise

2 tablespoons Dijon-style mustard, preferably Grey Poupon

2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice

1 tablespoon minced scallion (white and light green parts)

Pinch coarse salt

1 tablespoon minced capers (optional)

For the halibut:

Four 6-ounce halibut fillets of even thickness, skinned if desired (may substitute cod)

1 teaspoon coarse salt

2 tablespoons Dijon-style mustard, preferably Grey Poupon

11/2 cups fine fresh white bread crumbs

1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley

3 to 4 tablespoons butter

1 lemon, halved, plus additional lemon wedges for serving

For the lemon-caper dijonnaise: In a small bowl, whisk together the mayonnaise, mustard and lemon juice. Add the scallions, salt and, if desired, capers and combine. Taste and adjust the seasonings accordingly. Cover and refrigerate for at least 4 hours and up to overnight.

For the halibut: Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.

Pat each fillet dry. Place them, skin-side down, on a clean dry surface. Sprinkle each fillet lightly with salt, spread some mustard evenly over the top and sides of each fillet and sprinkle first with some bread crumbs and then with parsley.

Line the bottom of a rimmed baking sheet with foil and spread 1 to 2 tablespoons of butter over the foil. Using a spatula, carefully transfer the fillets to the buttered foil. Cut the remaining 2 tablespoons of butter into small pieces and sprinkle them over the fillets Squeeze the lemon evenly over the fillets.

Bake the halibut until it is crusty and golden on the outside and moist and flaky in the middle, 15 to 18 minutes.

Transfer the fish to individual plates and pass the mustard sauce on the side. If desired, serve with additional lemon wedges on the side.

Per serving: 625 calories, 38 gm protein, 9 gm carbohydrates, 48 gm fat, 94 mg cholesterol, 11 gm saturated fat, 1056 mg sodium, 0 gm dietary fiber

Chicken Dijon With Vegetables

4 servings

Though this home-style chicken dish has a deep, slow-cooked flavor, it takes no more than 30 minutes to prepare. The most time-consuming part of the recipe is chopping the vegetables. There will be ample mustard sauce to spoon over rice or potatoes.

4 boneless, skinless chicken breast halves

Salt and ground white pepper

8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter

1/2 cup diced onion

1/2 cup diced celery

1 clove garlic, minced

1 cup carrots, cut on the diagonal into thin slices

1 cup white mushroom caps, quartered

1 cup asparagus tips, blanched

3 tablespoons flour

2 cups chicken broth

1 cup half-and-half

3 tablespoons Dijon-style mustard

Pat the chicken dry. Cut each breast lengthwise into thin strips. Season the chicken with salt and pepper to taste.

In a large skillet over medium heat, melt 2 tablespoons of butter. Add the onion, celery and garlic and saute until the onions are translucent, about 3 minutes. Push the vegetables to the outer edge of the skillet and add 4 more tablespoons of butter to the center of the skillet. When the butter melts, add the chicken and cook, stirring occasionally, just until the chicken is cooked through, about 5 minutes total. (May need to work in batches.) Push the cooked chicken to the edge of the skillet, add the remaining 2 tablespoons of butter. When the butter melts, add the carrots, mushrooms and asparagus and saute until the mushrooms are tender, about 3 minutes.

Gently stir together the vegetables and chicken, sprinkle the flour evenly over the mixture and toss gently until the flour combines with the butter to form a paste. Slowly add the broth to the skillet, tossing and stirring constantly to keep lumps from forming, and simmer until the sauce thickens, about 4 minutes. Stir in the half-and-half and return to a simmer. Add the mustard and stir until incorporated. Season with salt and pepper to taste and remove from the heat. Serve hot.

Per serving: 485 calories, 34 gm protein, 17 gm carbohydrates, 32 gm fat, 146 mg cholesterol, 19 gm saturated fat, 379 mg sodium, 3 gm dietary fiber

Russell Cronkhite, former executive chef of Blair House, is the author of "A Return to Sunday Dinner" (Multnomah, 2003). He last wrote for Food about minute steaks.

Among the

many mustards, clockwise from top right: deli-style, beer and traditional yellow. TAKE THE QUIZ: Do you know where that jar of mustard is really from? Labels can be deceiving PAGE 2