Relishing The Radish

Some people mistake radishes for humble salad fare, but when I've fallen for them, they are always far from the salad bowl.

The first time was when an Indiana-born friend made radish sandwiches — a staple from her childhood — for our lunch using long, elegant, demurely tapered French breakfast radishes. I still remember the staccato rhythm of her knife as she made quick work slicing radishes in her Amagansett, N.Y., summer home — chop-CHOP, chop-CHOP, a team of horses cantering upon her wooden cutting board.

She slathered slices of brown bread with sweet butter, then piled high the tiny pink-white rounds between them. The first bite was a surprise of textures and flavors, crunchy and soft, creamy and piquant. I still remember standing at the kitchen counter, huddled over the cutting board, as tiny radish rounds fell from our overstuffed sandwiches with each bite. We'd catch them on the first bounce off the cutting board, greedily stuffing them into our mouths.

I've been addicted to this simple pleasure ever since.

Of course, leave it to the French to perfect the art of the simple pleasure. For years, they have eaten whole radishes dipped in butter, as a homey snack meant for countryside picnics. Often, the radish is scored with an X at the bottom (the better for adhering slippery butter), then dipped into one of the luxurious, extra-high-butterfat unsalted butters, and finished with a sprinkling of rough fleur de sel. I've heard tales of thrifty Eastern European cultures with a fetish for radish-and-butter combos too, yet as usual, the French make it seem more like luxury than necessity.

Radishes have long caught my eye, and I've been delighted to see more varieties appearing at my local Greenmarket. In early spring, I long for a bit of color on my plate, before the lush late-summer bounty piles high. Radishes help bridge that gap. The radish is a "cool-season" vegetable, according to the University of Illinois Extension site (which includes an excellent guide to radish varieties and gardening tips). The extension service makes a distinction between winter radishes (harvested in the fall, and at markets now) and spring radishes (planted now, and harvested in late spring and summer).

In addition to the classic red globe and dainty pink French breakfast varieties, I find the daikon has the greatest versatility. Long and slender, like a snowy cousin to carrots and parsnips, it has a mild flavor and is fabulous when chopped roughly and sauteed or stir-fried, providing a crunch similar to water chestnuts.

It's also the surprising star of a number of cocktails. Sonoma, Calif., mixologist Scott Beattie pickles daikon like kimchi, and serves it with gin and strong ginger beer. (I've been warned to pickle any radish with caution. The scent can become rather funky, even sulfurous, if left in a closed container for too long. New York-based Japanese cocktail expert Gen Yamamoto grates daikon until pulpy, and pairs it with barley shochu (a popular Japanese ultradistilled clear spirit made from a variety of grains and starches). I tried muddling thin coins of daikon, and found it a wonderfully earthy companion to green tea and ginger, shaken in a cocktail shaker with ice and strained into a V-shaped martini glass.

About The Author

Kara Newman is a New York-based writer and fiery foods enthusiast. She is the spirits columnist for Chile Pepper magazine, and her articles on food, wine and spirits appear in a variety of national publications. Her most recent book is Spice & Ice: 60 Tongue-Tingling Cocktails. Learn more at the Spice & Ice blog.

Many radishes look plain from the outside but, once cut, show vivid colors and patterns. The peacock-showy watermelon radish, for example, is green on the outside and a lush, deep, hot pink inside. Thanks to the exotic coloring and mild, almost sweet taste, this one is a chef favorite, sliced translucently thin and used to dress up salads or as a refreshing bed for grilled meats.

While many radishes, such as the classic red globe, black and daikon varieties, are readily available in many supermarkets, specialty varieties may require a trip to a local farmer's market. French breakfast and watermelon radishes are among those grown by smaller farms — but they are worth seeking out for the wider array of flavors, colors and shapes.

If you're lucky, you may spot something new. For example, during a recent market expedition, a mound of bright purple radishes caught my eye: Japanese karkine radishes, a pungent, spicy variety of daikon. Unable to resist anything labeled "spicy," I bought a bunch. Sliced, they revealed a gorgeous cross-section like purple tie-dye, blushing from deep purple on the outside to white flesh shot through with thin purple veins, fading back to deep purple again in the center.

A humble root vegetable, yes, but also too special to be hidden in a salad bowl beneath a tangle of lettuce leaves.

French Breakfast Radish Sandwich

This is a simple pleasure, dressed up with an herb compound butter and microgreens. If pale pink French breakfast radishes are unavailable, substitute red globe radishes.

French Breakfast Radish Sandwich
Kara Newman for NPR

Makes 4 sandwiches

1/2 cup unsalted butter

1/2 tablespoon chopped tarragon

2 bunches French breakfast radishes, sliced into thin rounds (about 1/8-inch think)

1 1/2 cups pea shoots or other microgreens

8 slices brown bread , such as pumpernickel

Allow butter to soften, and stir in herbs. Spread a layer of herb butter on one side of each piece of bread. Lay out four pieces of bread, butter side up, and arrange a layer of radish rounds on top of the butter, followed by a layer of micro-greens on top of that. Top with a second piece of bread, butter side down. Slice diagonally into two triangles and serve.

Sliced Steak On A Bed of Radishes

Radishes provide a refreshing crunch and visual balance to sliced steak. Watermelon radishes are my favorite for this, but consider subbing in mild white daikon. If you have a mandoline, you can cut paper-thin radish slices.

Sliced Steak On A Bed of Radishes
Kara Newman for NPR

Makes 4 to 6 servings

1/2 cup peanut oil

1/2 cup soy sauce

2 tablespoons mild vinegar

1 teaspoon dried thyme

2 to 2 1/2 pounds London broil

1 bunch radishes, thinly sliced

In a large bowl or plastic bag, mix together peanut oil, soy sauce, vinegar and thyme. Allow meat to marinate in the mixture for several hours or overnight.

Preheat grill or grill pan to medium-hot. Remove the meat from the marinade. Grill 10 minutes on each side for medium rare, or until desired degree of doneness.

Transfer steak to a carving board and let stand for 5 minutes. Cut across the grain into thin strips. Arrange on plates atop a bed of thinly sliced radishes and serve.

Cured Salmon With Spicy Radish Sauce

Curing your own salmon is an adventure, but if that makes you nervous or you don't have time, you can always purchase prepared gravlax or smoked salmon. If you do cure your own, you need a day for marinating. A lot of ingredients go into the spicy radish sauce, but the fresh radish flavor still shines through. This recipe is adapted from one used at the Intercontinental Hotel, Buenos Aires.

Makes 4 appetizer servings

For Salmon

1 pound skinless salmon fillet

1 1/3 cups sugar

10 tablespoons salt

7 tablespoons white wine

2 cups fresh dill

For Sauce

1/4 cup red-wine vinegar

2 tablespoons Dijon mustard

1 tablespoon water

7 tablespoons vegetable oil

7 tablespoons sour cream

2 tablespoons finely chopped onion

2 tablespoons finely chopped parsley

1 tablespoon grated spicy radish, such as Japanese karkine (equal amount prepared horseradish may be substituted)

1 tablespoon finely chopped shallot

1 tablespoon peeled and finely chopped cucumber

2 teaspoons capers

Salt and pepper, to taste

For Garnish

1 cup baby lettuce leaves

1 cucumber, thinly sliced

Place the salmon in a glass dish and sprinkle with the sugar and salt. Pour the white wine over the salmon, cover the dish and refrigerate for 3 hours.

Remove the fish from the dish and scrape off the salt and sugar. Return the fish to the dish, top with the dill and refrigerate for 6 hours more.

For Spicy Radish Sauce

Whisk together the vinegar, mustard and water. Pouring in a very slow stream, whisk in the oil. Whisk in the remaining ingredients and season to taste with salt and pepper.

Slice the salmon very thinly on the bias, or cut into squares. Place cucumber rounds on serving plates. Top with salmon and place a bouquet of lettuce leaves on top of the salmon. Drizzle sauce around the plates and serve.

Daikon Green Tea-Ni

Gin is flash-infused with green tea to create this subtle sipper, which melds with earthy daikon and piquant ginger flavors. Taste the daikon first for pungency. If the radish is very mild, use an extra couple of slices.

Makes 1 cocktail

1 green tea bag

2 ounces gin

3 to 5 pieces of daikon radish, peeled and sliced thin

1 1/2 ounces ginger liqueur

3/4 ounce fresh lemon juice

1 mint sprig, for garnish

Immerse tea bag in hot water for 10 seconds, then remove it from the water and immerse it in the gin. Allow to steep for 5 minutes. Remove tea bag.

Use a muddler or the back of a spoon to crush the pieces of daikon at the bottom of a cocktail shaker. Add tea-infused gin, ginger liqueur, lemon juice and ice. Shake vigorously and strain into a martini glass. Garnish with mint sprig.

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