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Dear Dr. Chef Boy Ari,
Every summer I choose a vegetable that I don’t really get along with, and I make a good faith attempt to like it in the context of various culinary preparations. Last year it was beets, and I made grand progress (thanks in part to your nice article on pickled beets).
Well, this is my year for radishes. They look so bright and beckoning at the Farmer’s Market, and this early in the season I’ll eat just about anything that’s fresh, so I buy some. But all I ever do is munch a few raw and slice the rest into salad. I feel like I’m stuck on the surface, but I don’t know how to dive in further. What can I do?
Dear Mr. Scene,
The radical tuber with the fiery disposition can be employed with surprising range, provided you understand a few key aspects of radish nature.
First of all, radishes can be superficially grouped with peppers in that they impart a flavor that is often described as “hot.” Although there are key taxonomic, chemical, and flavor differences between the two, the analogy holds in that if all one ever did with hot peppers was munch a few raw and slice the rest on salads, one would indeed be stalled upon the surface of a large ocean of possibilities.
Interestingly, both radish and pepper are associated with chemical weapons. The oleoresin capsicum in peppers is the active ingredient in pepper spray. Meanwhile, the active flavor component of the radish (as well as that of mustard, broccoli, watercress, cabbage and the whole army of cabbage fam-ily members) is a chemical group called isothiocyanates—commonly thought to be the active ingredient in the infamous mustard gas. Alas, although you may have read it here last year, the link between the cabbage family and mustard gas is a myth. Sorry.
Digging a little deeper, we nonetheless find that although both are described as “hot,” the kick of the radish is very different from that of the pepper. Pepper heat stays around the mouth (while causing the entire upper body to sweat) and continues to creep hotter and hotter—despite all attempts to put out the flames. Radish heat goes straight to your head, evacuates your sinuses, and then quickly vanishes.
Almost everything I know about radishes I learned from Asian cuisine. In this context, my favorite preparation is the Japanese green radish paste called wasabi—an essential component of the sushi experience.
Last year I went to South Asia, where I visited Bhutan and Thailand, the cuisines of which expanded my radish-sphere considerably. In Bhutan, for example, there is a popular dish called phagsha pa in which radishes are stewed slowly with pork. While decompressing on the beach in Thailand, I was thrilled to realize that the fried noodle dish known as pad thai—one of my favorite Thai dishes—incorporates pickled radishes.
Phagsha pa also requires mustard oil, which is tough to get around here, but can be ordered over the Internet (try and remember, when cooking with mustard oil, to heat it a few minutes alone in the pan until it smokes before using it). Otherwise, heat some high-frying oil like grapeseed oil at medium heat and add some mustard seeds. Then add chopped bacon or other pork product. My hands-down favorite is Lifeline Organic, available at the Good Food Store (although, grumble grumble, the price shot from $5.75 per lb. to $8.79 per lb. after the big move).
Anyway, you got yer pork product frying in the oil with yer mustard seeds. Then add some sliced radish, chopped onion and hot peppers. Add a bit of water so it starts to steam, and put a lid on the pan so the steam can build up some pressure. Stir it and stew it, adding water if necessary, until it all comes together.
Take home message: Cooking radishes mellows and sweetens them, and the radish flavor is transferred to the other ingredients.
To make pad thai, begin by cooking, straining and rinsing rice noodles. Then heat some oil in a wok with chopped garlic. Add chopped tofu and chopped pickled radish. After it starts to simmer and flavo-merge, pour in some beaten eggs. When the eggs start to set up, add soy sauce, stir it all around, and stir in the noodles—with some tamarind sauce if you’ve got it. Add bean sprouts, chives and ground peanuts. Remove from heat and garnish with more bean sprouts, chives, ground peanuts and a slice or two of lime.
Take home message: Pickled radishes are a great way to begin a stir-fry.
Other take home message: Pickling season is upon us. I pickle my radishes in halves and quarters in a 50/50 mix of water and cider vinegar, sweetened to taste. To each jar I add a few dried bird’s-eye chili peppers, three tablespoons of mustard seeds and a tablespoon of salt.
Yours truly, Dr. Chef Boy Ari.
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