Spicy, crisp, buttery or tender, radishes offer something for every season

G Daniela Galarza

THE WASHINGTON POST – “What do I know of man’s destiny?” Samuel Beckett wrote in 1966, “I could tell you more about radishes.” Our fates are indeed a mystery, but radishes – crisp, colourful and peppery – are a known factor, a gardener’s first fruit and a staple at grocery stores, farmers markets and in CSA boxes.

A root vegetable, radishes are a member of the cabbage family, related to kale and cauliflower and, as the name suggests, horseradish.

In the United States (US), popular radish varieties include Easter egg – which can be white, pink, purple or crimson – French breakfast, daikon, mammoth white and Spanish black, but there are many more, including: watermelon radishes have a green exterior and pink starburst interior; purple daikon, sometimes called purple ninja, are a deep violet; white icicle are cream-coloured and oblong; chonggak are pear-shaped; and lime radishes have a green tint.

Radishes are a year-round crop and mature quickly; many can be harvested after just 30 days in the ground. Here’s how to tell when they’re at their peak, how to store them and a few ideas on how to eat them, from whole as a snack to sliced or shaved into salads or slaws to roasted until buttery and tender.

PICKING

“One of the unpredictable things about radishes that people always ask about is how to know if they’re mild or spicy,” said Aaron Choi, farmer and co-owner of Girl & Dug Farm in San Marcos, California. “This will vary by season, but my rule of thumb is smaller radishes are milder, while larger ones are going to be more likely to have a sharper flavour.” Some say radishes grown in hot weather will develop spicier flavours faster, but this can vary by variety and the region in which the radishes are grown.

Roasted Radishes, Potatoes and Crispy Lentils. PHOTO: THE WASHINGTON POST

Choi, who is about to harvest a new radish variety that he described as slightly oblong and “red on red, with bright red centres”, said it’s easy to tell if a radish is fresh. “It’s hard to find radishes with pristine tops, because of how they’re farmed and watered, but if you find them with full, unblemished leaves, get those. It’s a sign they’re very fresh.”

But, if the radishes don’t have tops, or their leaves look a bit mangled, fret not: Give them a squeeze. “What you look for is firmness, which means they’ve been grown properly and stored in the right conditions,” said Jamie Swofford, a farmer and forager based in the foothills of North Carolina. “They shouldn’t be squishy. They should look alive, vibrant, even if they’re not just-picked.” Choi agreed, noting that, “If you hear or feel any hollowness, chances are, it’s going to be limp instead of crisp, and may be unpleasantly fibrous inside.”

STORING

Here’s where I’ll admit I’ve been storing radishes wrong for most of my life. (The shame!) Every expert I spoke with said radishes can last a long time – provided they’re kept in produce or zip-top bags, away from excess moisture. Founder of Local Roots, a New York City-based farm box collective Wenjay Ying likes to “take the tops off and place them in a separate produce bag with a dry paper towel. The roots can be stored in another produce bag. Separating the tops and roots keeps the roots fresher, for longer”. Swofford also stores radishes in a bag – paper or plastic – in the crisper drawer of his refrigerator. “I have a daikon in my refrigerator that I pulled out of the ground in May. It’s still crisp and perfect,” he said.

EATING

Good news: Every part of every kind of radish can be eaten raw or cooked. Choi loves serving smaller radishes whole and raw, leaves and all. “Take the whole thing, tops, root, everything, and just dip it in soft fresh butter, a little salt, a little lime juice. Done,” he said. Radishes are often seen sliced into coins or matchsticks and used as a garnish or in salads and slaws. Radishes make great pickles, too.

Don’t forget to eat your greens: “Radish tops taste like arugula and can be eaten raw, sauteed or made into pesto,” Ying said. Saute them in oil with a bit of garlic, or toss them into salads.

Both Choi and Swofford recommend cooking radishes that don’t feel firm or are past their prime. “Roasting them, with some butter or oil and salt, will smooth out that fibrous texture,” Choi said. Roasting radishes also softens their pungency.

“A lot of people don’t realise that you can cook radishes, like you would any other root vegetable,” said Chef Daniela Gerson, a food stylist and photographer based in Southern California who writes about cooking on her blog Waves in the Kitchen. Gerson likes to roast radishes – whole, halved, chopped or even thinly sliced, which produces crisp radish chips – but she has also pan-fried them and braised them with butter and aromatics like garlic and herbs.

Popular around the world, radishes are most often eaten raw or pickled. They make a great taco garnish, can be fermented into kimchi or eaten out of hand. Roasted or braised, they make a substantial side dish. Radishes may not be as sexy as eggplant or tomatoes, but treat them right and they’ll earn their keep.