It's often relegated to a supporting role in salads, but this root vegetable is a rising star. As stuffing for a luxurious sandwich or a vibrant accompaniment to steak or fish, the radish truly shines.
Some people mistake radishes for humble salad fare, but when I've fallen for them, they are always far from the salad bowl.
The first time was when an Indiana-born friend made radish sandwiches — a staple from her childhood — for our lunch using long, elegant, demurely tapered French breakfast radishes. I still remember the staccato rhythm of her knife as she made quick work slicing radishes in her Amagansett, N.Y., summer home — chop-CHOP, chop-CHOP, a team of horses cantering upon her wooden cutting board.
She slathered slices of brown bread with sweet butter, then piled high the tiny pink-white rounds between them. The first bite was a surprise of textures and flavors, crunchy and soft, creamy and piquant. I still remember standing at the kitchen counter, huddled over the cutting board, as tiny radish rounds fell from our overstuffed sandwiches with each bite. We'd catch them on the first bounce off the cutting board, greedily stuffing them into our mouths.
I've been addicted to this simple pleasure ever since.
Of course, leave it to the French to perfect the art of the simple pleasure. For years, they have eaten whole radishes dipped in butter, as a homey snack meant for countryside picnics. Often, the radish is scored with an X at the bottom (the better for adhering slippery butter), then dipped into one of the luxurious, extra-high-butterfat unsalted butters, and finished with a sprinkling of rough fleur de sel. I've heard tales of thrifty Eastern European cultures with a fetish for radish-and-butter combos too, yet as usual, the French make it seem more like luxury than necessity.
Radishes have long caught my eye, and I've been delighted to see more varieties appearing at my local Greenmarket. In early spring, I long for a bit of color on my plate, before the lush late-summer bounty piles high. Radishes help bridge that gap. The radish is a "cool-season" vegetable, according to the University of Illinois Extension site (which includes an excellent guide to radish varieties and gardening tips). The extension service makes a distinction between winter radishes (harvested in the fall, and at markets now) and spring radishes (planted now, and harvested in late spring and summer).
In addition to the classic red globe and dainty pink French breakfast varieties, I find the daikon has the greatest versatility. Long and slender, like a snowy cousin to carrots and parsnips, it has a mild flavor and is fabulous when chopped roughly and sauteed or stir-fried, providing a crunch similar to water chestnuts.
It's also the surprising star of a number of cocktails. Sonoma, Calif., mixologist Scott Beattie pickles daikon like kimchi, and serves it with gin and strong ginger beer. (I've been warned to pickle any radish with caution. The scent can become rather funky, even sulfurous, if left in a closed container for too long. New York-based Japanese cocktail expert Gen Yamamoto grates daikon until pulpy, and pairs it with barley shochu (a popular Japanese ultradistilled clear spirit made from a variety of grains and starches). I tried muddling thin coins of daikon, and found it a wonderfully earthy companion to green tea and ginger, shaken in a cocktail shaker with ice and strained into a V-shaped martini glass.
Many radishes look plain from the outside but, once cut, show vivid colors and patterns. The peacock-showy watermelon radish, for example, is green on the outside and a lush, deep, hot pink inside. Thanks to the exotic coloring and mild, almost sweet taste, this one is a chef favorite, sliced translucently thin and used to dress up salads or as a refreshing bed for grilled meats.
While many radishes, such as the classic red globe, black and daikon varieties, are readily available in many supermarkets, specialty varieties may require a trip to a local farmer's market. French breakfast and watermelon radishes are among those grown by smaller farms — but they are worth seeking out for the wider array of flavors, colors and shapes.
If you're lucky, you may spot something new. For example, during a recent market expedition, a mound of bright purple radishes caught my eye: Japanese karkine radishes, a pungent, spicy variety of daikon. Unable to resist anything labeled "spicy," I bought a bunch. Sliced, they revealed a gorgeous cross-section like purple tie-dye, blushing from deep purple on the outside to white flesh shot through with thin purple veins, fading back to deep purple again in the center.
A humble root vegetable, yes, but also too special to be hidden in a salad bowl beneath a tangle of lettuce leaves.