Consider, if you will, the radish. While lots of once-obscure vegetables seem to come into fashion and now get a lot of attention — think kale — the radish remains obscure. In America, the radish is famous (or perhaps infamous) for having made Scarlett O’Hara sick when, famished, she ate one on an empty stomach. Once in a while a slice of radish shows up in a mixed salad and, even less frequently, radishes may make up part of a crudités tray. But they’re hardly anyone’s go-to vegetable and when was the last time you saw them on a restaurant menu?
But radishes deserve a better reputation and a more prominent place on our tables. First, they are a great source of vitamins, minerals, and other phytochemicals.
Radishes are a very good source of vitamin C . . . helping to rebuild tissues and blood vessels, and keeping bones and teeth strong. Vitamin C fights disease and rescues the cells from an onslaught of destructive free radicals. This is done through electrolytes and natural antioxidant action of this one vitamin, increasing immunity of the body, and helping to fight against all kinds of diseases, including cancer, heart disease, and stroke.
Folate, fiber, riboflavin, and potassium, as well as good amounts of copper, vitamin B6, magnesium, manganese, and calcium are less prominent nutrients that support the healthy properties of radishes.
It’s probably no surprise that radishes contain fiber, aka indigestible carbohydrates. This keeps your system flushed and functioning with regularity and also aids in maintaining a healthy weight. Ironically, these naturally-heated veggies may help put an end to any burning sensation experienced during urination. That may be because radishes are a natural diuretic, purifying the kidney and urinary systems and relieving inflammation.
Radishes can also regulate blood pressure, relieve congestion, and prevent respiratory problems such as asthma or bronchitis. They have antibacterial, antifungal, and detoxifying properties, and contain compounds that soothe rashes, dryness, and other skin disorders.
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Another mouthful of phytochemical goodness in radishes includes detoxifying agents called indoles, and the powerful flavonoids zeaxanthin, lutein, and beta carotene. Radishes also contain an important isothiocyanate antioxidant compound called sulforaphane, a proven inhibitor of prostate, colon, breast, ovarian and other cancers.
Second, radishes are relatively inexpensive. A large bunch of red radishes (about 8 to 12 radishes) is selling for $1.69 at my local grocery store. If you want a fancier bunch with various colors of radishes (for a prettier salad, perhaps, or a more colorful crudités tray), you’ll pay $1.99. A bunch will last for at least a week if you clean them, cut off (and save!) the green tops, and put them, with a paper towel, in a container or baggie. The green tops are edible and good for you. Clean them thoroughly and steam or sauté them, alone or with other greens. I like to serve them with a sprinkling of vinegar. No reason to throw away perfectly good food.
Third, radishes are very easy to grow, even if you only have a small plot or a large pot or two. You can plant them in a sunny spot a month or so before the last frost date for your area. They’re an especially fun crop for beginning gardeners and children because they mature quickly and don’t require much fuss. And, if you grow your own, they’re even cheaper than when you buy them from the grocery store.
Like all root vegetables, radishes want loose soil — it’s difficult to grow big and round if you have to push against thick clay or hard rocks. So it’s worth your time to loosen the soil, using a trowel, shovel, pitchfork, or hoe. If you can work in a bit of sand and some crumbly compost (but only a bit; you can over-fertilize radishes and wind up with more leaves than bulbs), so much the better. Once they sprout (usually just past three weeks), you’ll want to thin them out so that the remaining plants are about two inches apart. (NO! Don’t throw away the ones you thin. Think of them as micro greens, perfect for mixing in a salad or into plain yogurt. My local CSA charges $18.50 for six ounces of micro greens, so definitely take these inside, rinse well, and enjoy them.)
Fourth, radishes are delicious. Sure, they’re great in salads and I find that if I thinly-slice a few and put them in a container in the fridge with some cold water, I’m more likely to use them when I’m making a quick salad. They’ll last about a week or so. (A word on slicing radishes: because they are so peppery, most people like them better when they are sliced very thin. My foodie friends would use a mandoline slicer, but I just use the peeling knife that I use to peel potatoes and carrots and to zest citrus fruits.) But radishes are good for more than just mixed salads. I sometimes make a salad of just radishes and green onions. It’s easy:
Slice the radishes as thin as possible and put them in the fridge in a container of cold water. You can do this a day ahead. When ready to serve, slice the green onions and mix with drained radishes. Sprinkle with toasted sesame seeds (you can buy these in the spice aisle), several generous tablespoons of granulated sugar, and a nice covering of sesame oil. Mix and serve. This is colorful and people are almost always pleasantly surprised at the taste. I recently served some guests a comfort food meal of meatloaf with mashed potatoes and peas and this radish salad. The sweet, peppery taste went well with the denser foods and reminded everyone that spring is coming.
Radishes are also good when grated or very thinly minced and sprinkled either along with, or instead of, chives on top of mashed or baked potatoes. If you’re trying, as I am, to substitute sweet potatoes, yams, or winter squash for white potatoes, try grated radish on top of those. The sharp taste of the radish brings out the sweet taste of the tubers.
Southern Living suggests roasting the radishes along with asparagus and new potatoes for a spring version of potato salad and mixing up a chive-radish spread that will go on ham biscuits, crackers, even cornbread. I’d make this to keep in the fridge for unexpected guests or for a quick sandwich when I’m busy cleaning up the garden.
There are many ways to use radishes in Indian food. A variety of radish known as French Breakfast is lovely sliced, dipped in unsalted butter and then salt. You can also serve a simple and sophisticated canapé to last-minute guests. Slice the radishes and spread room-temperature butter on several pieces of bread. Cut the bread into four triangles. Place the radishes on top in an attractive design. If you grow some parsley in a pot by the door, you can chop some up and sprinkle it on top. Or not. Open a bottle of wine. There are main dish recipes, too.
And if you find yourself with too many radishes on hand (not difficult to do if you plant a few new rows every two weeks or so) you can always pickle them. If you mix a bit of pickled radish with good gin and call it a spring martini, I won’t tell.
Fifth, and finally, the humble radish has noble apparitions in literature. Apart from Margaret Mitchell’s sadly racist tome, one of the world’s best food writers, MFK Fisher, explained that:
In “A Tramp Abroad,” Twain grouses about the food he found in Europe in 1878 (even a god can sound a little limited at times), and makes a list of the foods he has missed the most and most poignantly awaits on his return. It starts out “Radishes,” which is indeed either blind or chauvinistic, since I myself always seem to eat five times as many of them when I am a tramp abroad as when I am home.
In many versions of the fairy tale Rapunzel, it is the sight of fresh radishes in the Witch’s garden that makes the cobbler’s wife mad with desire. (This is not crazy; radishes are one of the first vegetables to show up in the Spring and, after a Winter of dried and salted meat and stale grain, a taste of fresh vegetables would have been wonderful.) The cobbler breaks into the garden to steal the radishes and the Witch catches him, demanding that he give her his first-born child. The rest, as Byron Ballard would say, is tower time.
Do you grow and/or eat radishes? What are your favorite ways to prepare this food?
Picture found here.