Tactics for the young farmers market

Ari LeVaux

Photo by Phil Roeder via Flickr
Photo by Phil Roeder via Flickr

At long last, the summer farmers market is here. Time to clear some space in the fridge, dig out that wok, arrange those canning jars, grab some hipster repellent and get after all those radishes and tomato plants! Wooohooo!

I jest, but only a bit. In the infancy of a summer farmers market, diversity can be in short supply. The range of early crops is limited, and everyone else is growing them too.

 Luckily, thanks to increased use of greenhouses and other season-extending technology, it's becoming more common to see leafy greens on Day 1 of the market, plus the likes of onions and cilantro, alongside the beets, radishes and carrots that everybody has, and the kohlrabi that nobody wants. Mostly, however, during the springtime days of a summer farmers market, there will be plants for sale.

 Young, beautiful plants that will soon bear food and flowers. You will purchase them and bring them home to plant, even if you don't have a garden. Impulse plant purchases at the farmers market are as mighty as the plow when it comes to busting sod. Few can resist the pull of a lovely tomato plant that has been raised well, and only needs a good home in some dirt near one's house. Find a place to stick it in the ground, and wait for your tomatoes. In this way, the farmers market has been the gateway for many gardeners.

 In addition to the food you might harvest from that plant, there is another benefit to bringing it home: it's a stealth way of marrying into a farming family.

 To many farmers, their plants are like their children, and selling them at market is akin to marrying them off. Thus, when you buy a plant you also acquire some potentially valuable in-laws. For the rest of the season, you can report on the progress of the little plants. Such friendships can lead to many good places. So instead of showing up with your Guatemalan handbag, consider bringing a box, or maybe a wagon. And bring home a harem of vegetal spouses.

 Now, about those radishes.

 They are eye-catching. They look like candy, and so you buy a bunch, knowing full well that they do not taste like candy. Alternatively, you buy them out of pity, so they won't sit there looking so lonely. You vow to bring them home and make a spring salad with your newly-purchased greenhouse greens and sliced radish on top.

 You know the drill. One salad gets made. One radish gets used. The rest of that candy-colored bunch shrivels away in the back of the fridge.

 That's because eating a raw radish feels like having your head fumigated for cockroaches, and it doesn't occur to you, or practically anyone else, to cook a radish. But when a radish is cooked it turns sweet and delicious. Even my sugar-toothed kids will eat them.

 Another little-known fact about radishes is that the leaves are edible too. When you cook the leaves and bulb together, these very different parts create an interesting and tasty radish-on-radish juxtaposition, a contrast in both taste and texture.

 Wash a bunch of whole, fresh radishes with the leaves still attached. Cut off the spindly taproot at the bottom of each bulb. Small radishes can be left intact, larger ones should be sliced lengthwise, ideally such that some radish top remains on each slice.

 Heat some butter and/or olive oil in a pan (I prefer the combo), and sauté the radishes slowly on medium heat without stirring. After five minutes, the leaves will have flattened against the bottom of the pan and begun to crisp, while the bulb will begin to turn slightly translucent. Add a shot of sherry or white wine to loosen anything that might be sticking, and carefully flip the radishes.

 The leaves get melt-in-your-mouth crispy, reminiscent of the crispy small legs of a soft shell crab. Juxtaposed against the soft, juicy and sweet flesh of the cooked radish bulb, it's a tantalizing contrast. It's the side-dish that gets polished off, the garnish that won't get left behind, the radish that will be eaten.

 Making something taste better by cooking it with bacon, meanwhile, might seem like cheating. And so what if it is? Here's Indian-style radish dish that uses a bunch of items you can find at the early-season farmers market, plus bacon and ginger.

 Chop some bacon into inch-long pieces, and brown on both sides in the pan. Add a bunch of radishes, sliced, a chopped onion, and some sliced hot peppers-like jalapeno or Anaheim-as many as you dare. Season with salt. Cook slowly for 15 minutes on low/med with the lid on, stirring often and adding water if it starts to dry up. When it's almost done, add chopped ginger and green onion. Serve with rice.


So, yeah. Maybe it's worth getting excited about those radish and tomato plants after all.