I used to keep radishes for all the wrong reasons. In the garden, I planted them because they grow quickly and I wanted to harvest something, anything, as soon as possible. I’d buy radishes out of pity during the early weeks of the farmers’ market, at the sight of sorry farmers languishing behind tables of radish bunches, with little else for sale.
I’d bring a bunch home, with a half-baked plan like, “I’ll put them in a salad.”
Sound familiar? Was your last radish floating in leftover dressing at the bottom of a salad bowl? Was it untouched garnish? Shriveled in your compost pile?
Raw radish is too pungent for most people, and few understand how delicious it can be if you cook it—which turns the spicy bitterness into an earthy sweetness. My favorite methods of radish cookery are: without pork, with pork and pickled.
Radish leaves are edible, and cooking the leaves and bulb together creates radish-on-radish juxtapositions of flavor and texture. This recipe works best with long and slender varieties, like icicle or French Breakfast, and is a great way to use small radishes thinned from your garden. (You can follow this recipe with large, round radishes too, but you must chop the leaves and slice the bulb.)
Wash a bunch of whole radishes, with the leaves still attached. Cut off the spindly taproot at the bottom of each bulb. Heat a combination of butter and olive oil in a pan. Sauté the radishes slowly on medium heat without stirring. After five minutes, the leaves will flatten against the bottom of the pan and begin to crisp, while the bulb begins turning slightly translucent. Add a shot of sherry or white wine to loosen anything sticky, and carefully flip the radishes. Now add a few sliced garlic cloves and sprinkle with salt and black pepper. Cook until the garlic browns.
The leaves become melt-in-your-mouth crispy, like the small legs of soft shell crabs. The juicy flesh of the bulb, meanwhile, becomes soft and sweet.
My first-ever positive experience with cooked radish was in Bhutan. I had to go around the world to discover a trick that’s completely obvious, but it was worth it.
Technically, there’s no bacon in Bhutan. But there is phag-sha, which means “pork dried in cold air.” Cut from pork belly, like bacon, phag-sha isn’t cured with anything but the mountain breeze, and there’s usually a layer of pig skin on one edge of the slab. Pig skin is flavorless, extremely chewy, and contains the occasional coarse belly hair. Pig skin isn’t necessary for bringing out the best in radishes, and neither is phag-sha. Bacon works just fine, and so does any other kind of pork, cut into small pieces.
Unless the pork is very fatty, start with some oil in the pan, like grapeseed or safflower, and some cut pork. Cook on medium heat, stirring often, until the meat is nicely browned on all sides. Add water if it starts to stick.
When the pork is browned, add a bunch of sliced radishes, a chopped onion, and as many sliced hot peppers as you desire, seeds removed according to your heat tolerance. Season with salt. Cook slowly for 15 minutes on low/med with the lid on, stirring often and add water if it starts to dry up. Add chopped ginger and green onion when it’s almost done, stir-fry a bit longer, and serve with rice.
Pickles ’n’ Pad Thai
Putting up a few quarts of pickled radishes early in the season is a nice way to get warmed up for when pickling season begins in earnest during the summer’s dog days. Use a brine that’s two parts water, one part cider vinegar, one part white wine vinegar, and enough sugar to taste—just enough to soften the edge of the vinegar, but not overly sweet. Trim the leaves and taproot and pack the radishes into clean, sterile quart jars after adding a teaspoon of salt and a tablespoon of mustard seeds to each jar. Follow the pickling instructions that come with the Mason jar lids.
In three weeks your radishes will be pickled and ready to snack on, or serve alongside a rich meal, like steak.
Pickled radish can also be cooked, and one of the best-known examples of pickled radish cookery is Pad Thai, a stir-fried noodle dish from Thailand. Boil, strain, rinse and set aside some rice noodles. In a hot wok with a 1/4-inch puddle of oil on the bottom, brown a mess of chopped garlic, then add cubed tofu (or chicken, or other meat) and chopped pickled radish. As the proteins cook they’ll release water; keep stirring the sputtering pile until everything is cooked. Then pour in one or two beaten eggs. When the eggs start to set up, add soy sauce and stir it all around to break up the eggs into fragments. Then stir in the noodles, along with bean sprouts, chives and ground peanuts. When everything’s hot and mixed, remove from heat and garnish with more bean sprouts, chives, ground peanuts and a slice or two of lime.
Now that you’re ready to roll with radishes, you can buy them and plant them for all the right reasons. Just remember to keep that radish out of the raw dish.
Ask Ari: Garlic beckons
What’re you doing in Missoula?
—Curious Flash Fan
A: Watering my garlic, CFF.
I planted it last fall, before learning I’d be spending the next few years in New Mexico. This spring the cloves dutifully sprouted, and quickly grew to about 20 inches as of last week.
Although garlic needs a lot of water, irrigation is seldom necessary in Missoula until late May, when the spring rains diminish. So I planned my recent trip to coincide with setting up soaker hoses in my garlic so my housemates can water it for me.
Unfortunately, the precipitation this spring was light, and it would have been better if I’d arrived a week earlier; the week before I arrived was hot and dry. Also stunting progress was the fact that my soil was light on mulch and organic matter, both of which would have helped my soil retain water.
The upshot: As soon as I was able to pull my face out of my neighbor’s lilacs, I ascertained that my garlic patch was kicking ass compared to anyone else’s in town—as usual—except for the patch tended by my neighbor and nemesis, El Camino. His garlic had about four inches on mine, at least above ground.
But it’s below ground that counts, and to bring a productive harvest in July, I did a little first aid. After laying the soaker hoses I added another layer of straw mulch above them, to keep every drop of irrigation water in the soil. I also sprayed a solution of Alaska brand liquid fish emulsion onto the plants. It made the garden smell like a wharf, and will hopefully give my garlic a little pick-up. If my housemates turn the water on regularly for the next month, there’s an outside chance I’ll catch El Camino.
Send your food and garden queries to email@example.com