Round and red and crisp, they’re casually tossed on the plate at your favorite taco stand or jumbled in a jar at the salad bar, full of color and crunch but ultimately signifying nothing. But hold on -- there’s more to the radish than you might think.
The simplest way to prove it is to set out a chilled bouquet of them on a plate with a tub of softened butter and some coarse salt. Smear a radish in the butter and then dip it in the salt. Take a bite. It explodes with contrasting flavors and textures: sweet and salty, spicy and cold, crisp and rich.
This is about as complex as any dish you can devise but it requires only three ingredients. Clearly, there are unexpected depths to this little root.
That’s just a start. Quarter radishes lengthwise and sprinkle them with lemon juice and salt for another quick nibble. Slice them thin and toss the little red-rimmed moons with butter lettuce; notice how the crisp spice plays against the tender greens. Use a toothpick to spear together a radish half and a bite of silky smoked salmon.
You can even eat the leaves. In fact, you should. They have the texture of watercress and a bit of its flavor, but with that great mustardy radish bite as well. If you’re roasting or grilling meat, serve it with a simple salad of radishes quartered lengthwise with their tops attached and dress it with vegetable oil, red wine vinegar and a couple tablespoons of the carving juices. This time notice how the crispiness and spice serves to slice through all that smoky meat.
But wait, there’s more. Have you ever cooked a radish? Braise or glaze them with a splash of liquid and a dab of butter, or even roast them quickly. The crispness softens just a little and that sharp flavor loses some of its bite. It becomes something like a brightly colored tiny turnip.
Which makes sense. Radishes and turnips are members of the same family: brassicas, or mustardy vegetables (along with arugula, broccoli and turnips).
The distinctive radish flavor, which is even more pronounced in its elephantine cousin the horseradish, comes from a chemical called isothiocyanate, one so pungent that when isolated it makes a very nice organic pesticide. Bugs, apparently, don’t share our affection for the complexity brought by spice.
Although you can find radishes in the market all year round, this is really the season to get them at their best. First of all, they’re extremely fast growers (witness countless elementary school science experiments). They usually are ready to pick within a month of planting, which makes them a natural for cool-weather growing areas, but also for farmers who want to put in a quick crop between winter and summer plantings.
Somewhat perversely, the one thing radishes don’t like is heat. When the temperature of the ground exceeds 70 degrees by much, their flavor suffers; that pleasant little mustardy tickle becomes a full-fledged sting. Also, radishes that grow too big too quickly tend to crack or have hollow centers. They’re pithy rather than crunchy.
Look for sprightly leaves
When you’re shopping, look for radishes that are about as big around as a penny, certainly no bigger than a nickel. Leaves are the best indicator of freshness. They wilt and yellow very quickly, so choose bunches with sprightly and fresh-looking greens.
While our radish selection most of the year is limited to the familiar round red varieties (‘Cherry Belle,’ or one of its cousins), in the spring and early summer we get to meet the rest of the family. The so-called ‘Easter Eggs’ aren’t actually a single type of radish, but a seed assortment of various round radish varieties in colors including white, pale pink, purply pink, red and crimson.
The long, tapering ‘French Breakfast’ is another favorite, with a mild bite and a compelling red and white color scheme that brings to mind strawberries dipped in cream. Never mind that the French don’t eat radishes for breakfast. Another radish that pops up now is the pure white, very thin ‘White Icicle,’ which is nearly sweet.
And these are just the so-called spring radishes. You might also find the last of the winter varieties, such as the black radish, the Central European favorite that has such a powerful bite, and the many Asian radishes, such as the giant daikon and the smaller shinrimei (often called watermelon radish in the West because of its pale red heart).
In fact, rather than a poverty of choices, you could almost say that at this time of year we have an embarrassment of radishes.