Alan Tangren: Spring brings radishes
Ask The Forager
Dear Alan: What’s the best time of year for radishes? Sometimes they are tough and way too “hot.”
Alan: Radishes grow best when the weather is cool and moist, with little variation in temperature from day to night or one day to another. In cool coastal climates, such as the Bay Area, they grow well almost year-round, but in our foothill climate we get the best radishes in spring and fall. When radishes grow quickly in cool weather, they are crisp, juicy and mild.
Radishes at other times of the year can be variable, as even a few days of hot weather can turn them unpleasantly hot and pithy.
When I worked at Chez Panisse, radishes were served as soon as customers sat down. Their bright colors, accented by green tops, are a cheerful welcome on any table. Preparation is as easy as a quick rinse and a snip off the root end.
Most people are familiar with round, bright red radishes. But have you tried Easter Egg — round or oval in shape, in colors of white, purple, lavender and bright red? White Icicle has flesh that is tender, crisp and pure white. French Breakfast is an elongated radish whose color changes from bright magenta at the top to white at the root end.
Radishes are native to large areas of Europe and Asia, and have been cultivated for thousands of years, so their diversity of shapes, sizes and colors is not surprising. All radishes belong to a single botanical species, and are related to other cruciferous vegetables such as mustard and cabbage.
The radish family includes many lesser known relatives. Large, round Chinese radishes can weigh almost a pound. Baseball-size “watermelon” radishes have pale-looking skin that shades from green to white. But cut into one and you will find brilliant patterns of red, green and white.
Daikon radishes are widely used in Japanese cooking, and are fairly easy to find, even in supermarkets. There are many varieties, but most commonly you will find them about a foot long and a couple of inches in diameter. They are often used cooked in soups or cut into matchsticks and served raw.
When shopping for table radishes at the market, look for those with fresh, bright green tops. The small roots at the bottom should look healthy and not withered. The radishes themselves should have a smooth skin and feel firm. Avoid those that feel spongy.
Look for radishes with their tops, and avoid those sold in plastic without their leaves. Also avoid bunches with very large leaves. The energy of the plant probably went into the leaves. In fact, French Breakfast often have very short tops.
Asian varieties are usually sold with the tops cut off. Choose those that feel firm and have an unblemished skin, especially daikon.
Keep table radishes with their tops in a plastic or other storage bag in the refrigerator, but try to use them within a day or two.
Asian varieties without their tops will keep for a week or so in the vegetable drawer of the fridge. Just allow for good air circulation.
Radishes served at the beginning of a meal really perk up the appetite. I like to serve them as the French do, with bread and butter, and a small dish of salt for seasoning.
Sliced radishes add color, spice and crispness to a simple green salad or to those with other cool season vegetables such as cabbage or carrots.
Radishes that are sliced and julienned are very nice sprinkled over lobster or crab salad.
Finely julienned daikon can be combined with other root vegetables, including carrots, cooked golden beets, raw celery root and green onions. A pile of these matchsticks, lightly dressed with olive oil and lemon are a colorful and tasty counterpoint for slices of rare, grilled tuna or salmon tartare.
Just before serving table radishes, give them a good soaking in cold water to refresh them. Drain thoroughly. Pinch off the tiny root at the bottom if you wish.
Peel Asian radishes shortly before using. If they have lost some of their sweetness, soak the sliced or julienned flesh in ice water for 30 minutes or so. Dry in a salad spinner just before serving.
Table radishes are fun to grow and don’t take up much room. They are great for kids or impatient adults because they sprout and mature quickly, in a matter of three to four weeks. I remember planting them when I was about six years old and felt so accomplished when I served them at our family table.
Plant the seeds in early spring in good soil where you will have other crops later. Or plant in the fall after summer harvests leave gaps in the garden.
Chef Alan Tangren spent 22 years as a chef in the kitchens of Chez Panisse in Berkeley, eight of those years spent as the Chez Panisse forager. He teaches cooking classes and directs monthly Chef’s Tables at Tess’ Kitchen Store, 115 Mill Street in Grass Valley. Learn more at http://www.tesskitchenstore.com. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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