GIVE a kid a garden plot and a handful of radish seeds and that may be the beginning of a lifelong love affair with fresh vegetables.
Children get an immediate sense of accomplishment from raising radishes, says Bill Hash, project manager for the District's Youth Garden Project. Radishes can be pulled from the ground within a few short weeks after the seeds are sown. The green tops sprout within a few days and the vegetable is ready in about four weeks. For children, radishes are the first crop of spring.
"If I can get them hooked on radishes, I can get them hooked for the whole summer," he says. "Each plant has its own little surprise and children are always delighted when they get to pull up radishes. They like to wash them and eat them right there."
Hash, a veteran gardener, has spent the last 19 years teaching gardening to District grade-school children through the D.C. Department of Recreation.
Every spring he allocates 75-square-foot garden plots to about 360 students. They spend three hours each week cultivating their gardens, starting in early April and working into September when school starts.
Each takes home an average of 50 pounds of kale, collards, swiss chard, mustard greens, lettuce, onions, beets, tomatoes, cabbage, eggplant and green peppers for the family dinner table. But it's radishes that get them started, and it's radishes that get them interested, he says.
Radishes can be used for more than a garnish in the traditional garden salad. The bright green tops can be saute'ed lightly in butter and seasoned with salt and pepper. The root, which is most peppery when it's fire-engine red and not too large, can be cooked. Served in a sauce for fettuccine or steamed with scallions and chicken, cooked radishes are not only beautiful, but will surprise you with their distinctive taste, mildly reminiscent of cabbage. Be sure, however, to add salt to season just before serving, as it drains their color and they'll turn pink.
When buying radishes, look for loose bunches and avoid those in plastic bags where they cannot be closely examined. Stay away from spongy or cracked roots with black spots.
If you want to be just like the kids in Hash's garden and eat radishes fresh out of the garden, slice them onto French rolls slathered with butter and season with plenty of freshly ground black pepper. RADISHES, CHICKEN AND SCALLIONS (4 servings) 1/2 pound whole red radishes 8 to 10 large scallions 4 cups chicken broth 2 carrots, chopped 1 onion, chopped 2 celery stalks, chopped 2 1/2 to 3 pound frying chicken 1 cup dry white wine or vermouth Salt Herb bouquet: 1 bay leaf, 1/2 teaspoon thyme, 1/2 teaspoon tarragon, 4 sprigs parsley 1/4 cup heavy cream 1/2 pound plus, 1 tablespoon butter Juice of 1 lemon Freshly ground pepper
Wash radishes; set aside. Wash and trim scallions, leaving 1 to 1 1/2 inches of green. Combine chicken broth and 2 cups water, add the chopped vegetables and simmer for 15 to 20 minutes. Strain broth and set aside.
Meanwhile wash and cut chicken into serving pieces and arrange in a large saucepan. Pour in wine and 2 cups of reserved chicken broth to cover (additional broth or water if needed). Lightly salt, add herb bouquet, then bring to a boil, reduce heat, cover and slowly simmer chicken. After 15 to 20 minutes, remove light meat; keep warm while dark meat finishes (5 to 10 minutes longer).
While chicken is cooking, reduce remaining 2 cups reserved broth to 1/4 cup. Heat cream; keep warm. Add 1 tablespoon cream to broth; boil again until slightly thickened. Cut 1/2 pound cold butter into tablespoons. Over low heat, add 1/2 pound butter to broth reduction tablespoon by tablespoon, whisking constantly. (The sauce will thicken to a mayonnaise consistency.) As you are whisking, squeeze in the lemon juice. After butter is incorporated, beat in remaining warm (not hot) cream. Season and hold over warm water.
Ten minutes before the chicken finishes cooking, steam-boil radishes with 1 tablespoon butter and 1/3-inch water until tender. Blanch scallions until tender in boiling salted water 2 to 3 minutes, drain.
Remove chicken (saving broth for other uses). On individual plates, arrange separate portions of chicken, scallions and radishes. Spoon the sauce over all. It will just lightly cover the chicken and vegetables, allowing the creamy chicken, light green scallion, and pale rose radish colors to show through. PASTA WITH RADISHES AND CREAM SAUCE (4 servings) 3 tablespoons unsalted butter 1/3 cup minced scallions 3 cups thinly sliced radishes 1 pound fresh fettuccine 1 cup heavy cream Lots of salt and freshly ground pepper to taste 1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley
Heat butter and saute' scallions 3 minutes. Add radishes, cover and steam until tender. Cook fetuccine in boiling water until al dente (about 3 minutes). Add heavy cream to radishes, season heavily with salt and pepper to taste (pepper is critical to this dish). Add parsley. Toss with drained fettuccine and serve immediately.