Radical Radishes

Radical Radishes

Radishes are the fast food of the gardening world. Plant an apple tree and it will be at least a couple of years before you'll even begin to see any fruit. Tomatoes? They'll keep you waiting for months and then the birds beat you to the first ripe one.

Plant radish seeds, though, and before a month passes you'll be crunching into fresh, crisp radishes straight from the garden. Bite into one and you'll find the sparkling white flesh and taste its hint of sweetness with a touch of heat. Heck, radishes just taste FRESH.

Folks have been eating radishes for thousands of years. Confucius mentioned them, as did the Romans and Greeks, who brought golden platters of them to their gods, and the Ancient Egyptians fed them to their slaves to build their strength. They might be filling, but they wouldn't add much muscle since they're not very calorie or nutrient dense--a factor dieters love. Those same dieters may not be so pleased to hear that radishes have long been viewed as appetite stimulants, and were fed to the ailing to perk up their zest for food.

You might be surprised to find that all radishes aren't grown for their roots. Okay, so technically none of them are grown for their roots, since that fleshy part we eat is actually mostly swollen stem, but that's beside the point. You can find varieties grown for their seedpods, leaves and seeds--for centuries the seeds were an important source of oil. Back in the 1st century A.D, the historian Pliny moaned about farmers abandoning grain crops in favor of radish seeds whose oil they could sell for a handsome profit.

There are two basic types grown for their roots (okay, swollen stems): spring and fall radishes. Spring radishes are the familiar fast-growing small ones found in most supermarkets where you'll mostly see the small or medium red-globe types. The home gardener has many more choices available, though, from delicate elongated white icicle varieties to cylindrical bicolored French breakfast ones and others in colors ranging from black to pink to purple.

If you grow your own radishes, use the thinnings from your garden in salads. The flavor of the young leaves is similar to the peppery taste of watercress. Sprouts grown from the seeds are spicy and add lots of zest to salads and sandwiches.

If you're buying globe-type radishes, look for ones without cracks or wrinkles--you want the skin to be taut and firm. I prefer the ones sold in bunches with the leaves still attached over the pre-trimmed ones because they stay fresher longer that way. Radishes picked on the same day and sliced from the leaf will hold for only a day or two, but you can keep the still-leafed ones for up to a week.

To prepare radishes for serving, wash them to remove any lingering dirt, and pinch or slice off the tops and any hairy roots. If your radishes have lost a little crispness, soak them in ice water for several hours and they'll regain it.

Fall radishes are grown, not surprisingly, in the fall and are larger and slower growing. These store well, and are the ones more often used in Asian Cooking--the Daikon is the common name for a popular type that's often in stores. It looks like an oversized white carrot and is up to a two feet long. Its flavor is sweeter than most globe types with the bit of heat you'd expect from a radish, but a bit juicier. These are great peeled, shredded and mixed into salads or cut into strips for stir-fries. Their mild flavor makes them a perfect accompaniment to other ingredients like vinegar and soy sauce, as combined in this tasty salad.

Spicy Radish Salad
2 cups shredded Daikon radish
1/4 cup rice vinegar
2 tablespoons soy sauce
1 tablespoon orange juice

Radishes are members of the mustard family and their heat comes from a reaction that forms mustard oil. That oil is found mostly near the skin, so if your radishes are particularly hot you can peel them to tame the fire.

Let radishes add color and crunch to your crudite tray and salads, of course, but try them cooked, too. Cooking brings out a radish's sweetness--try adding cooked cubes of it to soup for an unusual touch or bake larger ones with a little honey and butter for an unusual side dish.

Or, for a change from the traditional radish rosette, journey to Oaxaca, Mexico next December 23 for La Noche de los Rabanos. That's when they carve large radishes into intricate sculptures to celebrate (drumroll please) The Night of the Radishes.

Gee, it sounds much better in Spanish, doesn't it?

About this Author