alk into many a taqueria and there they are. Sitting next to the pickled jalapenos and the lime chunks, there is usually a bowl of radishes. I asked a friend of mine, who is of Mexican descent, about why this is, and she did not have a concrete answer. Her surmise is about the same as mine – they are cheerful looking and look nice on a plate, and the cool crunch and hint of heat are welcome foils for the sometimes oily meats and density of refried beans. I asked her if her family used them in any dishes and she replied that they only use them sliced next to tacos for color and on top of posole (hominy and meat stew). I then looked radishes up in all the Mexican and Southwest cookbooks I have (and I do have quite a few) and could find only one recipe for using them raw as crudités.
The French relegate radishes to the same fate as well. Sometimes they put them in salads, but usually a radishes’ destiny on the French table is to be served cold with soft butter, salt, and dark bread as an appetizer. The Italians do much the same, although I did find a couple recipes where radishes are coupled with salty things such as bottarga (dried gray mullet or tuna roe) or cured anchovies. I point all this out to say that for the most part, it seems radishes are ignored, except to be considered essential to any crudités platter.
Alice Waters, in Chez Panisse Vegetables [Harper Collins, New York, 1996, ppg. 253] says, “No meal at Chez Panisse is complete without radishes.” She then goes on to say they put radishes on every table. I say this is a great place to start, but radishes can offer more. I love the colors of radishes and I think good radishes are excellent plain. I like to wash them off, take off the greens and thready root, and them dunk them in ice water for a while. The radishes get really cold and seem to firm up a bit more, and I find that combined with the peppery bite to be quite bracing.
However, radishes have a lot more to offer. They are great in salads, and make nice salads on their own or with things like cucumbers, carrots, or chunks of avocado. I used to make a smashed radish salad with just radishes, and sometimes with additions such as shreds of lettuce and hard-boiled egg or cold shrimp. This salad could be dressed with honey-mustard vinaigrette or in the Japanese style with a rice vinegar dressing.
Besides using radishes raw, I like cooking radishes. Inspired by Asian cuisine, I have experimented cooking radishes with great results. The flavor of radishes, once cooked, tends to mellow out, but they keep enough character to add interest to combinations or to act as a foil to bigger flavors. I also love the colors of cooked radishes. They go from tempera-like bold colors to softer watercolor-like shades, although the colors seem to become more vibrant. One of my favorite dishes for color is the sauté of fava beans and radishes with lovely bright shades of green and deep pink. This dish would also work with asparagus in lieu of favas. Roasted radishes make a nice addition to a platter of roasted roots, and are great served with braised brisket. Halved radishes sauté nicely, and paired with baby Tokyo turnips and glazed, they also look wonderful and taste great with roast chicken.
A relative to table radishes is the watermelon (a.k.a. Beauty Heart) radish. This lovely is often overlooked as a funky looking turnip. While having some turnip-esque qualities in flavor and how it cooks, once past the skin it looks nothing like a turnip – or anything else for that matter. This radish has a green tinged creamy white skin, and then explodes with color inside. There is a pale ring of green just under the skin, and then the center of the radish is magenta and fuchsia shot through with veins of red and white. This radish is fine raw, and is quite striking cut into thin slices or batons and added to salads or eaten straight as a crudités. It can be wilted and dressed as a salad in the style of sunomono or kimchi as well. This radish shines as a cooked vegetable also. Roasted in chunks or sautéed in batons is fine, but this radish, because it is so solid, is a great one to add to dishes such as soups or bowls of ramen. When cooked, like it’s table radish brethren, the colors soften and the flavors mellow, but they are still striking. Use this radish cooked wherever you would use turnips or rutabagas, just remember not to over cook them.
How to Select Radishes
When selecting radishes, there are a few things to look for. Check the greens (these are not found on watermelon radishes), they should be bright and healthy looking. Avoid those where the greens are wilted and browning, or starting to look slimy. Look for radishes that don’t have a lot of cracks, scarring, or holes in them. They should not be showing any yellow tinge to them (I find these to be usually quite harsh tasting), and the colors should be lively. Always check that the radishes are firm and solid feeling-they should feel heavy for their size. Avoid those that feel soft, spongy, or light for their size, as these will likely be spongy, hot, and harsh tasting.
How to Store
When I get my radishes home, I usually trim the leaves and rootlet away, leaving just a little stem to keep the radish from drying out. To use, I make sure to wash with plenty of water after taking off the stems. To serve raw, I like to leave them in ice water for at least 15 minutes prior. Also, if you serve them raw with butter, make sure the butter is soft and radishes are dry or the butter will simply slide off the radish into your lap.
I hope you give these unsung heroes of the table a chance to shine by cooking them up. You can find radishes at T & L Coke Farms, Blue Heron, and Pinnacle at the Aptos Farmers Market. In addition to table radishes, the Cokes and Pinnacle also offer watermelon radishes.