Real Food Right Now and How to Cook It: Radishes

I’m pretty sure I fell in love with radishes on a visit to France, years ago. I was staying with my boyfriend-at-the-time’s family in a little town northeast of Bordeaux called Saint-Aigulin. I say “pretty sure” because, admittedly, I drank a lot of excellent local wine and Cognac (or was it Armagnac?) while I was there and the details are kind of fuzzy – there were drunken naps in hammocks and grilled flank steak and lively conversation that I understood only about twenty percent of – but I’m fairly certain that it was in Saint-Aigulin that I first had what is still my favorite way to eat radishes: raw, with their tops still on, smeared with local, rich butter and sprinkled with sea salt, with slices of baguette standing by to temper the radishes’ spicy bite. I’m sad to say that I haven’t been back to France since that trip, but I still eat them the same way I learned to do (I think) in a little town in France so many years ago.

A Brief History

The origin of the radish, a member of the delightful Brassica family, is hard to come by in the archaeological record, but it is thought that its wild ancestor – probably more like a mustard green than a radish – is native to Western Asia and Europe. As Diane Morgan tells us in her book Roots, the radish has been cultivated since antiquity in the Mediterranean and in Asia, but it was likely the ancient Egyptians who first began growing the root vegetable. (According to Food Plants of the World, records of radish cultivation dates back 5,000 years in Egypt and 2,000 years in China.) Herodotus, the ancient Greek historian, writes in his book An Account of Egypt: “On the pyramid it is declared in Egyptian writing how much was spent on radishes and onions and leeks for the workmen….” Although it’s worth pointing out that Herodotus’ accounts are sometimes suspect, it seems reasonable that the pyramid builders (aka slaves) were given a ration of radishes and other vegetables – plus food historian Alan Davidson notes that there are a number of pictures and written references to radishes in Egyptian archaeological findings.

From these two centers of domestication, radish cultivation spread to pretty much everywhere. The ancient Greeks and the Romans enjoyed radishes, as did the Chinese, Japanese, Koreans and Indians of antiquity. By the 16th century, radish growing had spread to England and to the Americas (the latter via the Spanish and the Portuguese).

Factual Nibbles

  • In Oaxaca, Mexico, December 23rd is the Night of the Radishes (Noche de Rábanos), where local artisans carve crazy stuff out of radishes
  • Heirloom radish names are the best. A sampling: Rat’s Tail, Plum Purple, Easter Egg, White Hailstone, Chinese Red Meat (aka Watermelon), Helios (it’s yellow) and China Rose. 
  • A wild radish hybrid (a cross between cultivated radish and a type of wild radish called “jointed charlock” that may or may not be the wild ancestor of domesticated radishes) has become highly invasive in California.
  • The word “radish” comes from the Latin word for “root,” radix.
  • Radishes inspire music. It’s true. There is apparently a metal band called Radish and an electro-pop band called Mooli (the Hindi word for daikon). 

Cultivation

All radishes are classified as Raphanus sativus, but the plant varies wildly in root color and size. They are usually divided into a couple of major types: 1 ) Table or “European” radishes, which generally have small roots (usually red, pink, white, purple or a combination); 2 ) Asian radishes, including the giant daikon; 3 ) Rat’s Tail radish, a Southeast Asian variety grown not for its root but for its edible seed pods; 4 ) Black radishes (also called Spanish radishes), typically winter varietals; and 5 ) Fodder radishes, grown as animal feed. Radish varieties are also now being bred as a cover crop for organic farming systems.

Most radishes are very easy to cultivate from seed and mature very quickly in the garden – some varieties taking only a couple of weeks from seed to harvest (winter radishes take a bit longer). Hot weather and periods of dryness makes a spicer radish; their pungency is due to mustard oil. California, Florida and Michigan produce the most radishes in the US.

Seasonality

If you’re lucky, you should be able to find different types of radishes nearly year-round. The table radishes we are most familiar with in the US – typically bright red with white interiors, although heirloom varieties in different shapes and colors are becoming more common – are spring veggies, available in most places from April through June. Summer radish varietals also exist. Asian types, like daikon, are available in the fall and winter, and black radishes are typical winter fare, as they can be cold-stored for long periods of time.

Environmental impact

Thankfully, radishes don’t appear on the Environmental Working Group’s latest Guide to Pesticides in Produce. They aren’t terribly susceptible to pests, in part because many varieties are so fast growing, but if you’re concerned about pesticides, check with your local farmer about his or her growing practices. (*And take a look at our veggie rule of thumb!)

Characteristics

Table radishes are usually round and no larger than ping-pong balls (very large table radishes, unless bred to be large, tend to become woody). The most common type of table radish is red, but purple, red-and-white, white and pink radishes are becoming much easier to find at the market. French Breakfast radishes, my favorite, are oblong, reddish-pink at the top and white at the bottom. I also grow Easter Egg radishes, which are a mix of several different brightly colored varieties (including magenta, purple and white). Cincinnati Market radishes, and other types of radishes like the white Icicle, are carrot-shaped.

Daikons are typically very large – they can reach a foot in size – and white, with a cylindrical shape. Other Asian radishes are larger than table radishes, round and squat; some are green on the outside. An heirloom variety of daikon, the Watermelon radish (aka Chinese Red Meat or the more poetically named Beauty Heart), is one of my absolute favorites: its white or light green exterior gives way to a hot pink interior, resembling – what else? A watermelon!  Black radishes are what you might expect – dark black on the outside, and usually white on the inside. They may be round or more carrot-shaped.

What to look for

Look for radishes with minimal blemishes and absolutely no mushy spots (mushy radishes = yuck). Table radishes should have smooth skin. If their tops are still attached, look for perky greens with minimal wilting or yellowing.

Nutrition

Radishes are not really nutritional powerhouses – but they are very low in calories and have copious amounts of vitamin C. They are decent sources of folate and potassium, too.

What to Do with It

Every single part of the radish is edible – from root to leaf to seedpod. I love radishes best raw, but they can also be fried, braised, steamed and roasted. Cooking radishes reduces some of their peppery bite – but be warned, it also reduces their vitamin C content. 

Cooking

Radishes pair deliciously with butter and creamy cheeses (like goat), with onions and chives, and with citrus fruits and their juice. In the late spring when I have a glut of table radishes from my garden, I like to chop them up finely and add to any mayo-based salad (i.e., potato, tuna) – they add a much-needed crunchy bite. I also like to toss them in to just about any green salad – I like them best sliced thinly using a Japanese mandoline. They also taste great in salads with nutty grains like faro and quinoa. Mexican cuisine employs raw table radishes to add a crunchy, peppery accent to tacos, salads, sandwiches (tortas) and other dishes. If you’re hell-bent on cooking your table radishes, braising or roasting is the way to go – like these butter-braised radishes (but let’s face it – braising anything in butter is an automatic win) or these roasted radishes with brown butter and radish tops. In India, daikons are eaten in a bunch of different ways, even in curries. (My favorite way to eat daikon is stuffed inside a Vietnamese banh mi sandwich.) Daikon radishes are also used to make a common type of Korean kimchi.    

Or, make crispy chips out of them – like these Watermelon radish chips or the absolute best thing ever: Black Sabbath Black Radish Chips.

But wait! There’s more! Don’t throw away those radish tops! Table radishes have delicious leaves – so make a radish top pesto out of them, of course! And radish seedpods are becoming more and more common at farmers’ markets – they’ve got the same peppery bite as the root, just juicier and snappier (and greener).

Finally, if you’re sick of actually eating your radishes, make a beautiful radish wreath with them, instead!

Pro tips

Here’s an awesome video (with a chef who looks suspiciously like Colonial Sanders) that demonstrates how to peel and dice a daikon (hint: it’s super easy). And if making that oh-so-1980s radish rose garnish is too pedestrian for you, check out this amazing video demonstrating the fascinating art of Thai fruit and vegetable carving – and learn how to make a radish chrysanthemum, which actually looks totally easy to do!

Storage

Radishes hold up well in the refrigerator – they can be stored for at least a week in your crisper drawer wrapped loosely in a kitchen towel or paper towels.

Stretching your fresh food dollar though preservation

Radishes don’t freeze well – unless you make this amazing-sounding radish butter, which you should do, then wrap up in plastic wrap and freeze. But really, pickling your radishes is definitely the way to go. Here’s daikon and carrot pickle (classic banh mi sandwich stuffer), daikon kimchi and a whole slew of pickled radish recipes from Punk Domestics. 

Recipe

French Breakfast Radishes with Sweet Butter, Sea Salt and Chives

I sort of feel bad calling this a “recipe,” since its so dead simple – but if you’ve never eaten radishes this way, please try it out! You can make all sorts of substitutions here, too – sub goat cheese (or even cream cheese) for the butter or use a different variety of small table radish (small Watermelon radishes would be lovely, or colorful Plum Purple radishes). If you can get your hands on some smoked sea salt, it really ups the fanciness factor of this dish. You can also sub out sliced green garlic or finely minced garlic scapes for the chives. I love serving this as a first course at an outdoor barbecue – there is something so fun and DIY about it! (Also it takes about five seconds to prep.)

Ingredients:
2 large bunches French Breakfast radishes
8 tablespoons (one stick) unsalted butter, room temperature
2 tablespoons chives, very finely minced
Flaky sea salt (Maldon if you can get your hands on it)
1 crusty baguette, sliced

Method:

  1. Trim the “tails” from the radishes and wash the roots and leaves thoroughly under cold running water. Dry well.
  2. Scrape the butter into a small ramekin. In a separate small ramekin, combine the sea salt and chives.
  3. To eat: grab a radish by its green top. Dip the root in butter, then lightly in salt-chive combo. Take a bite of butter-salt-chives-radish root. Follow up with a bite of baguette. Heaven.

Serves 4 as an appetizer.

(*Vegetable rule of thumb: We think that first and foremost, in terms of nutrition, people should eat lots of fruits and vegetables whether they are organic or not. The EWG’s guide is a handy list, but we will point out here that the impacts of pesticides are not limited to your ingestion of them – agricultural chemicals also affect farmworkers and local waterways, both good reasons to buy organic, even those vegetables that carry a light pesticide load. Also, it has been demonstrated that produce grown by small-scale farmers, even those who are not certified organic, tends to have a lighter pesticide load than its industrially-produced counterpart, owing to industry’s tendency toward large monocrops.)

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