Radish Greens, Foraging and the Frequency Illusion

“A lot o’ people don’t realize what’s really going on. They view life as a bunch o’ unconnected incidents ‘n things. They don’t realize that there’s this, like, lattice o’ coincidence that lays on top o’ everything. Give you an example, show you what I mean: suppose you’re thinkin’ about a plate o’ shrimp. Suddenly someone’ll say, like, “plate,” or “shrimp,” or “plate o’ shrimp” out of the blue, no explanation. No point in lookin’ for one, either. It’s all part of a cosmic unconsciousness.”

Repo Man

“… Frequency Illusion: once you’ve noticed a phenomenon, you think it happens a whole lot, even “all the time.”   Your estimates of frequency are likely to be skewed by your noticing nearly every occurrence that comes past you….”

Arnold Zwicky, Language Log, August 7, 2005

Radish greens make a great soup. Well, I think so and so do plenty of others as it turns out. In Paris, radishes are plentiful come April and sport a mass of leaves filled with sand and pebbles. My frugal French neighbors (the old ladies) would never throw out the leaves. Bon sang! These femmes débrouillardes make a tasty little soup or just cook the leaves ‘à l’étuvée’ (which means with a dab of butter and half a wine glass of water in a covered saucepan.)

I’m not French but I qualify as pretty frugal and am definitely ‘getting on’ age-wise so washing those radish greens has become a springtime ritual. Radishes were already planted in my head after my granddaughter and I did some digging in the rain to sow some French breakfast radish seeds.

Imagine my surprise when I received a notice from prolific cookbook writer and writing teacher Diane Morgan about her new book Roots.  She included Radish Top Soup as the sneak peek recipe.

At dinner a few days earlier, my friend Odile served radishes as an hors d’oeuvre each with a sprig of green attached. That’s what I always do! I thought to myself and then remembered that another friend, Annabelle, had been the one to tell me that eating radishes with a green leaf attached makes them far more digestible.

Was I succumbing to frequency illusion? I looked in my recipe stash and discovered an Italian recipe for radish green soup I had filed away at least five years ago. And by the way, not only Odile but thousands of other folks munch away on radishes with their apéritif at this time of year. No illusion, just fact.

Still, it’s dispiriting to think you’ve come up with a dandy idea to write about only to discover the subject has been dealt with brilliantly in the New Yorker magazine. That ‘plate ‘o shrimp’ is not part of the cosmic unconsciousness after all and when it comes to eating, what hasn’t been hashed over?  My mother, aged 97, is not helpful. “Stop writing about food. It’s old hat.” Instead, she suggests that I write her book, Waiting to Die. When I mentioned it sounded a little grim, she retorted,“Nonsense! It’ll be a blockbuster.”

But hold on there, Mama! You might think you’ve heard it all before but isn’t that what we humans do? Repeat ourselves? Savour, reflect, and define? Relish, digest, and thrash out? Death and the weather probably do top the list but as Marcel Boulestin* put it around 1923, “Food which is worth eating is worth discussing.” 

What do you think? I asked my discriminating and knowledgeable friend Paola. “Are people saturated with all this food writing and talk? She looked shocked. “Not at all. It’s so normal to discuss these things. As we put it in Italian, ‘Prendere per la gola’ which sounds like ‘grab them by the throat’ but means, ‘seduce them with food.'”

Eat the greens!

So back to frequency illusion: how our brains always search for patterns. Arnold Zwicky, who is quoted at the beginning of this piece, coined the term and it refers to ‘selective perception’. We think we hear or see something constantly but in fact, our brains are doing a lot of sifting and sorting to give us that (very subjective) perception. The radish and its leaves float to the top of the old brain pan, in my case, thanks to Diane, Odile, Paris in April, the color green, sand, pebbles, butter and salt. You get the picture. To home in on radish green soup, note that many recipes contain potato and other root vegetables which give a little heft and texture and sweeten up the greens. I like a thinner soup of greens and broth because the color is so intense. See what you think.

While radish greens may enjoy a popularity du jour, face it: they are mostly thrown out. Radishes in the supermarket appear in bags without leaves and where do they go? In the trash. This thought leads to Washington, DC circa 1955 and my husband’s pet rabbit Wilbur. Wilbur was entirely fed from the greens and scraps that the Paul and his siblings gleaned from the produce manager at the back door of the Minnesota Avenue Safeway.

The little gleaners now take my mind to foraging and my own experiences which started in Avalon, New Jersey one summer around 1960. The Meerson family was visiting from Bougival, France and we spent a day at the beach. I associated the beach with swimming. Not so the Meersons. They associated it with fruits de mer. Clams, in this case. I had no clue that the little bubbles and holes at the shoreline were dead giveaways for serious clammers. Madame Meerson and her three little children dropped to their knees and began digging. In a short while, they had a big bucket of cherrystones and were already thinking about lunch. I loved this family!

Despite this introduction to creatures beneath our feet, I wasn’t always on the lookout.  I spent several summers at a pond near the Great Point end of Nantucket Island crunching over sharp points en route to the water (I thought it was seaweed) before I actually looked down. Mussels. Thousands and thousands of them. At low tide, you could gather a bushel in minutes. Removing the beards was the time-consuming part but pleasant enough if done outdoors. These blue mussels are more commonly found clinging to rocks but according to Terry O’Neill of the Massachusetts Marine Fisheries they can be found in salt marsh ponds. I’m being specific here because there is another kind of mussel: the ribbed mussel which is brownish in color and while not inedible exactly, “You wouldn’t want to eat it” says Terry.  They are important, however, as they do a great job of holding down all the grasses. As a caveat, it’s a good idea to check with the local shellfish warden to see what the regulations are in your area and what shellfish you will encounter.

Another island catch was conch which we could pick up at low tide off sand bars. Conch is not as easy to deal with as mussels but makes good chowder. These conchs are more properly known as whelks and smaller than those found in the Caribbean. Conchs around Nantucket Sound were plentiful and used to be considered a shellfish predator, therefore a nuisance and thrown out or used as bait. Nowadays, conch is big business and few are available for local consumption. Unless you gather them yourself.

Moving to Delaware in the mid-1970s, my foraging involved volunteer asparagus. ‘Volunteer’ was not a word I associated with asparagus or indeed any growing thing. But that just showed my ignorance.  “You’ll find volunteer asparagus growing behind the Ford agency.”  my elderly neighbor told me one day. Indeed I did; the wild remnants from someone’s garden or as the botanists say, open pollinated plants. If you find volunteer asparagus, it probably will have thin stalks and be somewhat fibrous. In commercial operations, volunteer asparagus is considered a weed but in Sicily, sparacelli is a delicacy to be found along roadsides, in fields and most conveniently, in street markets sold in big bundles. I found an article **suggesting that sparacelli is best eaten with a sharp cheese in a frittata. Good advice.

Sparacelli: Wild Sicilian Asparagus ©2004 Best of Sicily (bestofsicily.com). Used by permission.

For sheer confidence: meet a mushroom hunter. For a brief period in Washington, DC, I attended meetings of the Mycological Society. Members report on their finds, show slides, and in one case, displayed homemade jewelry with a mushroom theme. Slides shows prompted fierce debates over fungal identification. While these meetings had a certain Benny Hill quality to them, there was no doubt the members were genuine, enthusiastic, and seriously scientific. Their website http://msafungi.org/ is packed with articles, news, and even job offerings (in such places at Kew Gardens, the Swedish Museum of Natural History, and US public lands in Wyoming.) Foraging for mushrooms makes me a little nervous and I wish we were as lucky as French and Italian hunters who can take their stash to the local pharmacy for identification. I have two French friends who gather mushrooms every year with the nonchalance of picking up acorns.

My son-in-law JB’s mother Goldie Anderson is a morel whisperer from what I can tell. Here’s what JB says,

Where does she find them? Mostly in the woods around Logan (Ohio). She had numerous, favorite spots. She also had secret theories about what type of trees, slopes ,and elevations held the best habitat. Really, she is just good at seeing them. I could walk over them and she would come along and practically find them in my footsteps.”

Sometimes a friend will do the foraging for you.
David Lucas made good use of a toilet paper roll.

If you’re lucky enough to know someone like Goldie, tag along.

And then there is urban foraging. Despite a miniscule back yard in Philadelphia, my father planted two peach trees which produced a bumper crop of beautiful peaches. A few days before peak ripeness, however, some squirrels arrived with their own plans to forage. Not only did they eat all the peaches, they actually threw the pits at my parent. He was sad about the loss of his fruit but, as he dodged the pits, he admired the plump little squirrels and decided to take action. As a young man, he had a small ranch in Nevada where he raised rabbits. Squirrels aren’t that different, bodily, and he set about trapping and eventually eating the Philly squirrels. “Nothing to it! I used to skin 60 rabbits in an hour. It’s like taking off an overcoat.” I’ll spare further details but have provided a squirrel recipe below.

When I think of foraging, I think free stuff! And generally speaking, foraging often refers to plants and wild edibles. In Sicily, we were told that everyone has the right to forage for wild asparagus which  includes access to private property. This concept of the ‘right to forage’ has a long tradition in many countries. In Sweden, it’s known as Allemansrätten***, every man’s right to share the land. But it has its darker side as in soldiers (starving) foraging for food. Or simply hungry folks gleaning, hunting, and gathering.

Many foragers are secretive about ‘their’ spots but it’s interesting to remember that during bad times, desperate humans are open to sharing secrets. An example is the hobo sign codes of the 1930s, where out of work travelers would leave marks to indicate ‘food for work’, ‘housewife feeds for chores’, ‘talk religion get food’ or best of all: ‘sit down feed’.

Sit down feed
Photo by Paul Allman

Have you seen The Gleaners and I (Les Glaneurs et la Glaneuse)? With her handheld camera, the great documentary filmmaker Agnes Varda joins men, women and children who find sustenance and possibility from scraps and discards.

The Gleaners by Jean-Francois Millet

That initial thrill of discovery is the hook of foraging. Once you’ve found that cache, you will hope to go back year after year. The keys to foraging are these:

Act like the Meerson family. Imagine the possibilities and then, pounce.

Learn from the example of Goldie Anderson. Observe and remember.

Feel and sense in the manner of Agnes Varda. Recognize that foraging has deep roots in the past and right now.

***********************

*Marcel Boulestin (1878-1943) was a restaurateur in London who wrote many cookbooks including Simple French Cooking for English Homes. Elizabeth David loved this man (professionally speaking) and they both were ferocious about not adding meat broth – only water! – to soups. Boulestin believed that “The fresh pleasant taste is lost owing to the addition of meat stock, and the value of the soup from an economical point of view is also lost.”

3+ Radish Soup Recipes

The following soups do contain stock and should Boulestin and David be with us today, they’d undoubtedly be distainful. Frankly, commercial ‘vegetable’ stock is pretty bad – mostly salt. So suit yourself: water would work well.

Radish Green Soup with Leeks and Potatoes

3 words about adding pepper to soups: not too much. I think it sticks in the throat. Those who love pepper will add more at the table.

  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1 cup leeks, chopped (white and tender green parts)
  • 3 medium potatoes, chopped
  • 2 bunches of radish greens (about 8 cups)
  • 5 cups weak vegetable stock or water
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • 1 tablespoon butter
  • Garnish: finely chopped radishes

In a large saucepan, sauté the leeks in the olive oil over medium heat for a few minutes. Add a tablespoon or so of water and cook for 4-5 more minutes, until the leeks are tender. Stir in the potatoes. Add the stock or water, bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer for 20 minutes. Check to be sure the potatoes are soft. Add the radish greens and simmer for 10 minutes.

Purée the soup in a food processor, blender, or food mill. Don’t overdo the puréeing: the soup is best with some texture. Return to the saucepan and heat, add salt and pepper to taste and swirl in the butter.

Garnish with the chopped radishes, if desired.

Serves 4.

Variation:

Crema di Foglie di Ravanelli

An Italian version of this soup uses onion rather than leeks. The soup is garnished with crostini and sprinkled with Parmesan or Grana cheese.

Hardcore Radish Green Soup

Just the greens, ma’am! 

  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 2 shallots, minced
  • 2 bunches of radish greens, well washed (about 8 cups)
  • 4 cups vegetable stock
  • A few pinches sugar
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • Garnish: finely chopped radishes

In a large saucepan, sauté the shallot in the olive oil until tender. Add the stock and bring to a boil. Add the radish greens and simmer for 5 minutes or until the greens are soft and wilted.

Purée the soup in a food processor, blender, immersion wand, or food mill. Return to the saucepan and heat, add salt and pepper to taste. If the soup tastes bitter, add a bit of sugar.

Garnish with the chopped radishes, if desired.

Serves 2 – 3.

Radish Green and Cauliflower Soup

This was an accidental discovery, thanks to a cauliflower in the fridge. The cauliflower provided just the right amount of sweetness to the greens. In other words, it did the job that the potato does (in the first recipe) but the results were much more interesting. 

To the above recipe (Hardcore), include the following ingredients:

  • 1 medium head cauliflower, in flowerets, cooked in boiling water until just barely done
  • 1/4 cup crème fraîche
  • 2 – 3 tablespoon chopped mixed herbs: mint, chives and cilantro
  • 4 or 5 slivered or julienned radishes

Prepare the radish green soup as above adding the cooked cauliflower at the pureeing step. Stir in the crème fraîche just before serving or put a dollop on each serving.

Garnish with the chopped herbs and radishes.

Serves 4.

Foraging Favorites

Mirabel Avenue Jam

The Mill Valley, California street where our daughter lived was loaded with plums. Not Mirabels funny enough, but Santa Rosas. Here’s what we made:

  • 4 quarts Santa Rosa plums, washed, cut in half and pitted
  • 8 cups sugar

Clean and pit enough plums to halfway fill an 8-quart pot.

Add 1/4 cup water and bring to a boil.

Cook over medium heat just until plum begin to break down (soften).

Add the sugar.

Bring the mixture to a boil and then keeping it at a slow boil, cook until thickened.

Check for thickness by placing a teaspoonful on a flat cold plate. When done, the jam will keep its shape (not spread.)

Ladle into clean jars. Seal with lids while still hot. Can be frozen.

Yield: 6 pints

Wild Asparagus Frittata

Roberta Gangi suggests that Caciocavallo cheese, made from cow’s or sheep’s milk, is typical in a wild asparagus frittata. Caciocavallo is made much in the same way as mozzarella, comes in round balls, and is fairly mild and salty. Stronger sheep’s cheese such as Pecorino or Etorki would also be good.

  • 1 pound wild asparagus
  • 6 eggs, beaten with 2 tablespoons of water
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 cup sheep’s milk cheese, cut up
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil

Break off the tough ends of the asparagus and discard. Cut the spears into 2 inch lengths and put in a frying pan (that can go in the oven) with one tablespoon of olive oil and water to barely cover. Bring to a boil, lower the heat, cover, and cook until the asparagus is tender (about 5 – 8 minutes).

Remove the asparagus to a bowl and wipe out the frying pan. Preheat the broiler in your oven.

Add the remaining olive oil and heat. Combine the eggs, cheese, and asparagus, pour the mixture into the frying pan and cook slowly until just set. Place the pan under the hot broiler to puff and slightly brown the top of the frittata. Do not overcook! Transfer to a warm platter or cut into wedges.

Serves 4 modestly.

Lew’s Squirrel Soup

‘Foraging Favorite’ is an exaggeration here. I asked my good friend Miriam  who knew my father well if she’d ever had it. Her response: “Thank God, no.” But she certainly remembered it!

  • 1 whole squirrel, cleaned
  • 1 carrot, sliced
  • 2 onions, chopped
  • 2 stalks celery, chopped
  • 2 bay leaves
  • ½ teaspoon thyme
  • Salt and pepper
  • 1 cup cooked rice

Place the squirrel in a soup pot and add all the ingredients, except the rice. Cover with water and bring to a boil. Lower the heat and simmer, partially covered for about 1 ½ hours. Remove the squirrel and discard the bones. Shred the meat.

Bring the broth to a boil and reduce it for about 5 minutes. Add the meat and check the seasoning. Add the  cooked rice and serve.

To make this a little more exciting, I would add something green: a half cup of spinach, maybe.

Resources and References:

** Roberta Gangi’s article Wild Sicilian Asparagus http://www.bestofsicily.com/mag/art344.htm

*** Joy Hui Lin’s article on foraging in Sweden http://www.saveur.com/article/Travels/Swedens-Every-Mans-Right-is-a-Foragers-Dream

Rebecca Busselle’s article in Martha’s Vineyard Magazine confirmed my memories of cooking conch and I also used the Joy of Cooking to figure out how to deal with these creatures.  http://www.mvmagazine.com/article.php?32866=

Check out Diane Morgan’s new book Roots as well as other publications at her website:  http://dianemorgancooks.com/

5 comments on “Radish Greens, Foraging and the Frequency Illusion

  1. What a beautiful essay, Mary. I love the image of squirrels throwing peach pits at your parents. And I hope you write your mother’s book!

  2. ANN PORTER says:

    Mary, I finally read this fabulous piece of writing. If only Lewis Bartlett Had been here when our Mercer Circle squirrels were rampant. We discovered an apartment building of a nest high in our oldest crabapple (not the lovely one you gave us and that always makes me think of you). After our contractor demolished the nest, our apples stayed on the tree. For a few years though, a pack of mutant squirrels were running around our back yard with full sized apples in their mouths.

    We’re now in the decade of the rabbit. Bringing a welcome end to his Mr. MacGregor phase, Frank has built a fence around his tiny garden. Now our bunnies sit close by and munch clover as he picks lettuce. Rabbits make much pleasanter companions than squirrels but not being a country girl at heart, I can’t imagine eating either.

    Many thanks for radish soup!!

    Love,
    Ann

  3. Fantastic Articles! Sicily it’s a treasure of beatiful things,sea and sun for all the years!If you want travel around the Sicily, i suggest you to visit tourofsicily.com.

  4. Filippo: I couldn’t agree more. Sicily is indeed a treasure.

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