Remembrance of produce past, part 2

My grandmother taught me to eat radishes. Or, I should say, I learned the habit from her; I don’t think she had any grand plan to indoctrinate me. She served radishes and scallions with breakfast, accompanied by individual dishes of salt for dipping. My cousin and I, aged about five, theorized implausibly about why the salt improved the flavor of the radish. We could agree only that without salt, the radish tasted impossibly harsh; with it, like heaven. (I may not have been a typical five year old.)

I have met few people since — all right, no one — who can match my love of radishes. It stems probably from the combination of a country upbringing and an addictive streak that demands excitement and strong flavors. To eat them for breakfast, as I still sometimes do, strikes me as so impossibly old-fashioned that it isn’t even country anymore but rather a bizarre twenty-first century transplant from the German-speaking rural Pennsylvania of 1925.

Saturday I bought the season’s first radishes at the market along with a bunch of watercress, another treat the Pennsylvania Dutch side of my family enjoyed in springs long past. Lacking any direct experience with that tradition, I made this sandwich for lunch, and lacking any desperately pressing work, I did the very German thing and drank a dark beer with my radishes. After all, I needed something to toast my ancestors.

Radish and watercress sandwich

  • 2 slices chewy, hearty whole-grain bread, preferably homemade
  • 1 tablespoon butter, softened
  • 2–3 large radishes, sliced thinly
  • several sprigs watercress
  • salt

Butter the bread. Cover one slice of bread with half the radish slices and sprinkle with salt. Add the remaining radishes and sprinke with salt again. Top with the watercress and the second slice of buttered bread. Serve with a bock or porter.

Remembrance of produce past

When I was young my mother tended a small garden. I’ve forgotten most of what she grew. I assume there were tomatoes (why have a garden if you’re not going to grow tomatoes?). Probably zucchini. My father would have insisted on parsley. There were peas, which I remember because when I was about five years old we ate them for dinner on the Saturday before Easter when the temperature reached ninety-three degrees. (Why we remember certain things from our childhood and not others is a subject for another posting, but suffice to say that nearly all of my most vivid memories from before the age of seven involve food. I can always tell you what we had for dinner the night of any major event.)

What I remember most from that garden are beets. In the early spring, when they were young and tender, we ate beet greens with butter and salt; later in the season my mother pickled them. By the time I was nine or ten she no longer gardened, and I was an adult before I tasted beet greens or home pickled beets again. You can’t buy baby beets with their greens still tender in a supermarket, and store-bought pickles never stack up.

We didn’t plant beets this year — an oversight — but this morning I bought a bunch of baby beets at the farmers market. For dinner I steamed them with their greens If my mother had been here she would have enjoyed them, but I had to enjoy them for the both of us. I offer the recipe (such as it is) in case you are lucky enough to have them available.

Baby beets steamed with their greens

For this recipe, the beets should be no bigger around than a penny and the greens young, tender, and bright green. They should come as whole plants, pulled from the ground, bunched for sale.

  1. Thoroughly wash the beets and greens. Trim the long roots and cut the beets from the stems, discarding the tough part where stem meets root. If necessary, cut the beets into small pieces (no larger than 1/4 inch). Chop the stems and set aside with the beets. Chop the greens and set aside in a second pile.
  2. Place the chopped beets and stems in a pot and barely cover with water. Add a half teaspoon of salt per bunch. Bring to a boil and cook until tender (about five minutes). Then add the greens, return to a boil, and cook another two to three minutes until they too are tender. (It may take longer to cook the greens, but if it takes longer than five minutes, they were probably too old.)
  3. Most of the water should have boiled off, but if some remains, drain the beets and greens. Add a tablespoon of butter and a few squeezes of fresh lemon juice per bunch. Taste for salt and serve hot.