The Humble Radish and Other Simple Pleasures

The negative aspects of quarantine are often mentioned these days. I have seen some adverse effects in my own life. Today however is a day to appreciate some of the nice and simple things.

This is now my third month of home-based confinement. Like almost everyone else I am still finding it hard to keep to a routine, find motivation at work, keep my child disciplined with online school, and, frankly, keep a clean and well-organised house.

One of the responsibilities I had to take on recently was kitchen duty. Before quarantine, I ate lunch at the staff cafeteria, and my child had his main meal at school. We complemented this with eating out at weekends, and some light and easy to prepare meals, mostly omelettes or other quick pan-fried meals.

My domestic skills have always been challenged, but a woman (and a child) got to eat, now that all our sources for cooked food are gone. Now, I have to create our dishes from scratch. Fortunately, this is fertile Africa, and raw food is readily available especially vegetables. I signed up with a weekly fresh vegetable basket from a nearby farm and got to work.

My weekly veggie basket has become a notable highlight of my quarantine life. I cooked the traditional African greens like sukuma, terere and managu. Some of those I would have readily mistaken for weeds, if I ever saw them in the wild. I enjoyed salads with arugula, and at least four different types of lettuce. I searched for recipes that combine wildly different ingredients (bok-choy and beetroot; lentils and celery; chickpeas, leek and parsley; green banana and peanuts). To compensate for my lack in knowledge, I took photos of unfamiliar vegetables trying to identify them online. I also asked my neighbour for tips on local plant names and cooking instructions.

The vegetables I received, weren’t always as familiar as your broccoli, cabbage and leek. I know what rhubarb looks like, but was never tempted to buy it, nor bake a rhubarb cake from scratch. But I found the red stalks three weeks ago in the basket. Now even my long disused cake pan is getting a workout. I also got to meet live specimen that I only saw before on a food plate, like baby bok-choy. I had to explore the versatility of some strange items that are neither fruit nor vegetables, like chayote. I also suffered a few cases of mistaken identity. Last week, I prepared a smoothie with what I thought was a guava. Much later I learned that it was White Sapote (some strange fruit that is sometimes called Mexican apple). The smoothie tasted a bit like bitter almonds and I feared that I had ingested some toxic substance from the seed, but it tuns out that the slight bitter taste is normal in this fruit.

In short, I had to work with ingredients that I would have never bought from the grocery. I am a simple potato, onion, tomato and green pepper girl. Anything more requires research and a recipe I probably never cooked before. Furthermore, I always considered cooking a chore. I was, after all, raised by a super-human mother who spends half her day in the kitchen, producing delicious fare that took so long to prepare, and no time at all to polish off the plate. To complicate matters further, my child is a very picky eater, who dislikes almost every kind of food, so there was never any motivation for me to try anything new, and I stuck with the few tried and true dishes he liked.

Surprisingly, and even with the lack of encouragement from my younger quarantine mate, I managed to find pleasure in the simple farm order. One day I received the basket while I was on the phone with my friend. She laughed at me when I became excited at finding a small bunch of radishes hiding in my basket. I have always been a huge radish lover. But getting it from the farm was a treat because in addition to enjoying its crispy bite, I could also do something with its leaves. They are wonderful in an omelette and can also be cooked like spinach greens. When cooked, they retain the slightly spicy taste of radish. The radish itself, can go into salad but I love eating it on buttered toast with a little bit of salt and pepper. It is a poor-man’s feast and something that takes me immediately to my childhood. I think it was something that my grandmother ate with great enjoyment. My mother introduced it to us kids, as I introduced it also in my home. Even my finicky child liked it, so there must be something genetic about loving radish.

Radish the humble ingredient, is always present at the breakfast table at my parents’ house in Germany. Mostly for my benefit I guess, since its season is very short here, while in Europe it is cheaply available all the time. My father laughs at me when I eat it raw like a piece of fruit, but he always buys me fresh bunches whenever we visit them.

I have always been a sucker for simple pleasures. Now I am discovering the simple joy and adventure of cooking. I approach it with great abandon, like love. And while I chop and mince the ingredients, I am not afraid to try adding something different, or leaving something out. At times this works well, and at other it turns out horrible. I learned for example that chayote, as tender as it is, takes time to soften, so it is best to add it first not last to the pot. Otherwise it remains crunchy, while the rest of the vegetables turn to mush. I also learned that it is ok to alter cake recipes. When my rhubarb cake tuned too moist the first time, I added less milk on my next attempt and it turned out in perfect balance the second time.

Yes at times one might go wrong, but it is about the journey, not about this one dish. I am taking it as an adventure.

Cooking is like love. It should be entered into with abandon or not at all.

 Harriet Van Horne, Vogue Magazine, 1956

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