Friday, September 17, 2010

Focus: RADISHES (Raphanus Sativus)

What is black, red, purple or white; crunchy; and is eaten by the French with breakfast, the Austrians with beer and the Japanese with everything??  You guessed it -- the radish!

A Featherstone Farm red daikon radish, cut in half
You might think of the radish as a spring thing, but for me radishes are most important in the fall and winter.  The season and growing conditions make a difference.  "Featherstone's fall table radishes tend to be much sweeter than its spring ones; the cool weather allows their sugars to develop slowly, giving them a sweet and mild flavor."  Tastes from Valley to Bluff: The Featherstone Farm Cookbook

You can get radishes - even in Minnesota - fresh all winter.  They make it possible to get through the winter without depending on salad greens from faraway places.  This is because radishes, grown well and prepared properly, can be juicy, crunchy, peppery and refreshing. If you sign up for a Featherstone winter CSA share, you will discover this first hand.

It is possible to have a very good quality of life and at the same time go for months without a leafy green salad.  I know this because I have done it.  One thing that helped at our house last winter was access to Featherstone Farm radishes.  Because even though we can do without leafy greens for awhile, we really can't do without something on the plate that is fresh and crunchy and sprightly and fibrous.  Pickled beets are fine and cole slaw is very satisfying.  But radishes can help get you through those long dark days when lettuce salad is but a dim memory.

History and geography
The Egyptians were eating radishes at least as early as 2,000 B.C.  (Can't you just imagine Antony and Cleopatra sharing a snack of little round ruby radishes?  Maybe while floating on a barge on the Nile.  How romantic.)  They also used radish seeds to make a prized and expensive oil.

The Japanese LOVE their radishes, especially daikon.  Fifteen percent of the total vegetable production in Japan consists of daikon radishes, which are eaten fresh, cooked or pickled.

Small, round and red radishes are traditional in Turkey and Iran and the Middle East in general.  Historically, white radishes were favored by Indians.  The Chinese preferred black.

Romanians, Poles, Germans and Russians love their radishes too.  In medieval and Renaissance times they relied on the large thick rooted winter kind.   My best radish memory is my visit to the Mulln Brewery in Salzburg, Austria back in the 70's.  (It is still there.)  They had a beer hall connected to the brewery.  You would get a liter sized pottery mug and line up to wait for your turn at the spigot.  And everyone had giant plates loaded with white radishes -  slices about 3 inches in diameter and 1/4 inch thick.  Beer, salt, radish slice - life was good.  I don't know the type of radish they were eating, but it is possible to find seeds for "beer radishes" if you want to try growing some.

Americans like their radishes too.  According to one of my sources, we eat about 400 million pounds a year.  

Types of radishes
Radishes belong to the crucifer family of vegetables, like mustard greens, watercress and horseradish.  They come in all kinds of shapes, sizes, flavors and colors.  The basic types are red (round, crisp, mostly hot); white (longish, sweeter and more bland) and black (dense and dry texture, earthy flavor, black on the outside and white on the inside).  You can't always tell how a radish will taste based on the variety.   Sometimes they are mild and sometimes hot.  Some of that depends on growing conditions and the weather.

Radishes are 94% water. They contain vitamin C, folate, riboflavin, potassium, calcium, magnesium, manganese and fiber.  They are extremely low in calories - 20 calories in one cup.

Radishes will store better if the leaves are removed.  Store globe radishes in a plastic bag in the refrigerator for about two weeks.  Daikons, unwrapped but refrigerated, will keep for even longer.  Black radishes are known for their long shelf life.  They can remain fresh tasting for months, as long as the leaves and root end are removed before storing.

Preparation  -- Half a pound of radishes is equal to about 1 2/3 cup sliced radishes.
I think radishes are best appreciated raw.  But they can be cooked like turnips or stir fried in combination with other vegetables.  Generally different kinds of radishes are interchangeable in recipes.

There is generally no need to peel the red kind of radishes.  If the skins are tough, might be a good idea to peel large white or black radishes.   The enzyme that gives radishes their spicy bite is found mostly in the skin - if you want to make a radish more mild, peel it.  Or cook it.

You can eat radish greens.  If they are young and tender they are great fresh in salads.  If they have gotten tough or prickly, you can use them for long braising like turnip or mustard greens.

Radish salad with Asian dressing
The vegetables may be coarsely grated, thinly sliced or julienned (1/8" matchsticks)
This is enough dressing for about 6 cups of vegetables.  You can use all radishes, or part carrots and part radishes.  A small amount of scallions or onions or thinly sliced sweet peppers may be added.
2 T. rice vinegar
2 T. asian toasted sesame oil
1 T. sake or dry sherry
1 T. soy sauce
1 T. sugar
1/2 t. salt
(any of these items can be adjusted after you taste the dressing if you prefer a little more or less acid, salt, sugar or soy)
Optional additions:  toasted sesame seeds, minced fresh chile peppers or red pepper flakes
Mix dressing well with whisk or with a blender.  Toss with vegetables.  Best if marinated at least an hour or before serving.

Radish sandwich
Thinly slice and butter bread - black bread is very nice for this.  Filling: thinly sliced radishes, a sprinkle of salt and very thinly sliced onion.  I think a dab of wasabi mayonnaise would be kind of fun on a radish sandwich. 

Radish canapes
Peel and slice daikon radishes about 1/4 inch thick
Spread each slice with cream cheese.  Place a piece of your favorite smoked or pickled fish on the slice.  If you have some fresh chives or parsley, garnish with some chopped herbs.  A sprinkle of a good smoked paprika would be good too.

Beet and radish slaw
Coarsely grate equal amounts of peeled, raw beet and raw radish (peeled if necessary) - about 1 1/2 cups each.  Mix with the following dressing:
1 T. red wine vinegar
2 t. honey or sugar
2 T. walnut or olive oil
1 t. dijon mustard
1/2 t. salt
Optional - 1 T fresh dill weed

Namasu (marinated daikon and carrots) - serves 4
This is from a nice book I have had for years - Japanese Home Style Cooking, published by Better Home Japan. 
3/4 pound daikon, peeled and cut into fine matchsticks (julienne)
1 small carrot, peeled and cut into fine matchsticks (julienne)
Sprinkle vegetables evenly with a pinch of salt and let stand in a colander or strainer for 10-15 minutes.  Squeeze to remove water.
Mix: 3 T. rice vinegar, 1 T. dashi*, 1 T mirin* and 2 t. sugar.  Add a pinch of salt.  Add vegetables and marinate a day for best flavor.
Dashi - this is a fish stock made with dried bonito flakes.  The flakes can be found in asian markets, co-ops or some large markets.  Follow directions on the package.
Mirin - this can be found in many types of food stores these days.  It is a liquid seasoning made from
sweet glutinous rice.  Its sugar and alcohol content give it a distinctive flavor and a sweetness that sugar alone cannot produce.

Radishes and Scallions with Raspberry Vinegar Glaze (from The Essential Root Vegetable Cookbook)
This is a recipe for cooked radishes
2 1/2 T. sugar
1/3 cup raspberry vinegar
1 T. unsalted butter
1/2 t. salt, or to taste
1/4 t. pepper or to taste
1/2 cup water
1 pound round red type radishes, trimmed and cut into uniform pieces if they are not the same size
2 T. minced scallion greens
In a skillet large enough to hold the radishes in one layer, heat all ingredients except the scallions.  Bring to a boil, covered, then turn down and simmer, covered, about 10 minutes.  Uncover and simmer 5-10 minutes more or until they are just tender. Remove radishes with a slotted spoon and keep warm.  Raise the heat in the pan and boil until the glaze is reduced to about 1/4 cup.  Return radishes to pan to coat with glaze.  Adjust seasonings.  Sprinkle with scallions.  Serve.

Other serving ideas
Add chopped radishes to your favorite salsa.
Add chopped or sliced radishes to potato, tuna or egg salad.
Eat radishes for breakfast with bread and sweet butter and salt.  Any type of radish will work - but you could try to find some french breakfast radishes.

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