Radishes radiant in winter

Root vegetable at its most flavorful, versatile as weather turns chilly

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A cook’s highest compliment to a fruit or vegetable is simplicity of preparation. Think of a mid-August tomato, the disinclination to interrupt its sun-ripened flavor with anything more than a bit of salt, or May’s first spears of asparagus, the ones so sweet and tender that cooking them seems almost uncivil.

Radishes are one of winter’s most convincing arguments for eating seasonally.

In 1974, writing in “On Food,” James Beard talked of being smitten with radishes; a novice gardener, he favored them pulled and eaten straight from the ground (though he also declared them something of an epiphany when served with bread and butter or wrapped in a single anchovy fillet). His adoration was of spring radishes, the petite cherry-red and pink-tipped icicle varieties sold at markets in tidy bunches when the chill finally starts to slink away, as demure in flavor as their looks suggest.

But in the same essay, Beard also mentioned “huge, black radishes,” which he recommended grating and combining with chicken fat or goose fat as a spread for bread. Beard’s black radishes probably were a Spanish heirloom variety harvested in the cooler months of fall and winter, part of a family of robust winter radishes that cooks and growers are just beginning to rediscover.

Delicately crisp and lightly hot, spring radishes are a tease of what a radish can be. They are charming in their way, relevant to other, equally understated flavors and textures of their season. But radishes are at their most pronounced, and their most versatile, in fall and winter. The return of autumn chill brings variety: pastel-painted German and Chinese heirlooms and juicy, miniature daikons in fade-out lime green. They differ so greatly in character from spring radishes as to seem another vegetable entirely. They eschew subtlety with dense, crisp flesh, a faintly nutty sweetness and an untamed heat that, depending on the variety and growing conditions, can vary from mildly spicy to wildly pungent.

Yet despite their assertiveness (or perhaps thanks to it), winter radishes, too, revel in minimalism. A plate of the Misato Rose radish, sliced thin, drizzled with a buttery olive oil and scattered with flaky sea salt, doesn’t want for more. Its interior color, vivid in kaleidoscopic fuchsia, precludes any need to fuss over presentation. And there are few livelier (and simpler) midwinter additions to a tangle of vinaigrette-dressed chicories or a lentil salad than wedges of whatever winter radish you happen to have on hand.

Winter radishes can also stand up to bold treatments, such as braising, roasting, sautéing and fermenting, that spring radishes are less obliged to tolerate. Exposed to heat, a winter radish mellows; its firm interior yields to tender and meaty. It’s the sort of vegetable you want in winter, whose usual committee of root crops, earthy and modest, speak in mild-mannered tones. They comfort the palate but don’t always inspire. Winter radishes are a flashy protest against cold-weather culinary monotony.

Winter radishes might be looked upon quizzically and are not so easy to come by, but that wasn’t always so. In the early 19th century, radishes were a staple in

the winter garden, providing nourishment and variety when little else could be coaxed from the soil. Home gardeners were encouraged to plant them for their ease of maintenance and longevity. In a root cellar or cold storage, radishes keep for four to six months with nearly indiscernible compromise in flavor or texture.

Industrialization and its associated conveniences rendered widespread winter gardening unnecessary.

Credit small-scale farmers with bringing radishes back to our tables. Growers are learning to rely on radishes as a cool-season crop, in part because a single harvest can produce months of sales.

Winter radishes begin showing up as early as October, bunched together with their sweet, peppery greens still attached. (Don’t throw these away; they’re nearly perfect braised lightly with olive oil and lemon, and you’ll feel thrifty and smug for keeping them out of the trash).

Fermented Radishes

Makes 1½ pints (12 servings)

Green Luobo and China Rose radishes work especially well in this recipe because of their relatively high water content. You can substitute daikon radishes instead, but the results won’t be quite as sweet-tasting. Toast caraway seeds in a small, dry skillet over medium-low heat for several minutes until fragrant, shaking the pan so they don’t burn. You’ll need 1 sterilized quart jar (or the equivalent in smaller jars) and some cheesecloth. Serve with an assortment of cheeses and whole-grain breads or as a garnish for a grain salad; or eat them straight out of the jar. The radishes need to sit for at least 8 hours or up to overnight; once transferred to a jar, they need to sit at room temperature for 3 to 4 days. The fermented radishes can be refrigerated in an airtight container for several months.

1½ pounds Green Luobo or China Rose radishes (may substitute peeled daikon radish)

1½ teaspoons caraway seeds, toasted, then crushed

2 teaspoons fine sea salt

2 teaspoons sugar

2 medium cloves garlic, minced (2 teaspoons)

Cut the radishes into wedges about ¼-inch thick, placing them in a mixing bowl as you work. Add the caraway seeds, salt, sugar and garlic, tossing to coat evenly. Cover and let sit at room temperature for at least 8 hours or up to overnight.

Pack into the sterilized jar(s), pressing the radishes down. Cover loosely with cheesecloth and allow to ferment at room temperature for 3 to 4 days, until lightly tangy, always making sure the radishes are fully covered by the liquid they will have released. Cover tightly, and refrigerate for up to several months.

Roasted Radishes

Makes 4 servings

Although you can roast spring radishes, winter radishes stand up better to high heat. Roasting them mellows their bite; their dense flesh becomes almost creamy. Daikon radish may be substituted for Hilds Blauer or China Rose radishes, but you'll miss that lovely interior pale pink color (and you'll need to peel them).

1 pound Hilds Blauer or China Rose radishes, scrubbed well (may substitute daikon radish)

½ teaspoon sea salt

½ teaspoon freshly cracked black pepper

1 teaspoon minced fresh rosemary

1½ tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

½ teaspoon ground fennel

Preheat the oven to 400 F. Line a roasting pan with aluminum foil.

Cut the (unpeeled) radishes into approximately 1-inch cubes and place in the lined roasting pan. Add the salt, pepper, rosemary, oil and ground fennel; toss to coat evenly. Roast for 20 minutes, tossing the radishes a few times so they cook evenly. They'll be lightly browned and tender enough to be pierced with a fork when they're done.

Serve hot or warm.

Per serving: 60 calories, 0 g protein, 4 g carbohydrates, 5 g fat, 1 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 310 mg sodium, 2 g dietary fiber, 2 g sugar

Grated Radish Salad

Makes four 1-cup servings.

Be sure to use the Black Spanish radishes called for in this recipe, which is a take on celeriac (celery root) remoulade. Their nutty, dense flesh will absorb the dressing without turning soggy.

1 pound Black Spanish radishes

Leaves from 4 to 6 stems flat-leaf parsley (about 2½ tablespoons)

1 teaspoon ground cumin

Freshly squeezed juice from 1 lemon (4 teaspoons)

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

1 teaspoon sea salt

1 teaspoon freshly cracked black pepper

Scrub the radishes, but don't peel them. Grate them on the large holes of a box grater and then toss in a mixing bowl with the parsley, cumin, lemon juice, oil, salt and pepper.

Let stand for 5 minutes before serving.

Per serving: 80 calories, 1 g protein, 5 g carbohydrates, 7 g fat, 1 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 630 mg sodium, 2 g dietary fiber, 3 g sugar

Radish Risotto

Makes 4 servings

Winter radishes are sturdy enough to stand up to long cooking; in this dish, they turn tender and infuse the rice's creamy sauce with a subtle, peppery sweetness. If you scrub the radishes but don't peel them, their skins will lend the risotto a pretty pastel hint of color. To make vegetable broth, combine 2 coarsely chopped carrots, 2 coarsely chopped medium radishes, tops from 1 bunch of leeks, 4 large parsley sprigs and 6 cups of water in a large saucepan; bring to a boil over high, then reduce to medium and cook uncovered for 30 minutes. Strain, discarding the solids. Cool before storing.

2 tablespoons unsalted butter

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

2 large shallots, finely chopped (⅔ cup)

1½ teaspoons fresh thyme leaves

2 large cloves garlic, minced

1 pound Hilds Blauer or Misato Rose (watermelon) radishes, cut into ½-inch cubes

1½ teaspoons sea salt

1 cup short-grain Italian rice, such arborio, carnaroli or Vialone Nano

⅓ cup dry white wine

4 to 4½ cups low-sodium vegetable broth, kept warm over low heat (may substitute no-salt-added chicken broth)

½ cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, plus more for garnish

¼ teaspoon freshly ground white pepper

Cracked black pepper

Heat the butter and oil in a large, heavy-bottomed saucepan over medium heat. When the butter has melted, add the shallots and cook for about 5 minutes, until golden. Then add the thyme and garlic; cook for 2 minutes, then add the radishes and salt, stirring to incorporate. Cook for about 3 minutes, until lightly browned, then add the rice; cook for a minute or so, stirring, so the rice is evenly coated and toasts a bit.

Stir in the wine and cook for a few minutes, then begin to add the broth one ladle at a time, stirring after each addition, until it is mostly absorbed. This should take about 20 minutes, and the rice should be creamy and tender. (You may have ½ cup of the warm broth left over).

Stir in the cheese and white pepper; remove from the heat and let the risotto rest for 2 minutes.

Divide among individual bowls; season each portion with cracked black pepper to taste. Pass more Parmigiano-Reggiano at the table.

Per serving: 420 calories, 11 g protein, 55 g carbohydrates, 16 g fat, 7 g saturated fat, 25 mg cholesterol, 1400 mg sodium, 3 g dietary fiber, 6 g sugar