Friday, July 15, 2005

Radishes -- For Looking and For Eating

On December 23rd each year, as the sun settles into the western sky and darkness falls, a tradition unfolds in Oaxaca, Mexico. In a single-file line, viewers pass slowly in front of lighted displays, set up on wooden tables in the city’s central plaza. Several days of preparation have been consumed in the production of the works of art that rest brightly on the tables.

To be sure, nativity scenes will be featured, animals and people and trees and stable included in the display. Saints with vivid expressions, cathedrals with intricate windows and maybe even a few dancers with flowing skirts and sword-wielding conquistadors will join the show. From time to time, even the Mexican revolutionary hero Emiliano Zapata appears!

Contestants smile broadly as viewers marvel at the intricate and colorful figures on display. Hopes run high, at each and every display, that its carefully-sculpted carvings will be a prizewinner. This festival, begun in 1897, is called Noche de los Rabanos – Night of the Radishes!

That’s right, all of the delicate, graceful figures are carved from radishes! Makes one wonder if that’s where the idea of the Pasadena Rose Parade sprouted – tables covered with radish figures inspiring floats covered with flower figures!

It also makes me wonder how I could EVER have felt so proud of myself after finally discovering that my radish roses would actually LOOK like roses, with softly curling petals, if I soaked them in ice water for an hour after making the criss-cross cuts. Well, to each level of artist there is an appropriate level of challenge!

As for the radish itself, it must feel – at least in Oaxaca – as if it is receiving the attention it deserves. Not just a garnish at the edge of a plate, an afterthought haphazardly plopped onto a bed of greens, a red item to complete the pinwheel of raw veggies surrounding the dip in the center of the platter, but rather, the star of the show!

Radish creativity has been increasing, culinarily speaking, in the rest of the world as well. The low salt and calorie levels, beneficial Vitamin C and digestion-enhancing benefits of this rooty member of the cruciferous family (with its above-ground broccoli and cabbage cousins), is turning up in all kinds of new settings and in all kinds of shapes.

The ultra-large (multi-pound) radishes used for the Oaxacan carvings are local to that area, for example. They grow into twisted and distorted shapes because of the rocky nature of the soil and range in color from white to pink to bright magenta.

In the United States alone, there are eighty-two different radish cultivars available. At farm stands and farmer’s markets, at least, we occasionally are able to see a few of those; home gardeners who dabble in radish cultivation see many more. It is often said that radishes are the perfect garden crop for children. Radishes sprout within days of seed planting and produce edible roots in thirty days. The perfect gardening project for children – or anyone else with a short-fused attention span!

Even the commonplace Red Globe radish of supermarket fame has taken a turn for the exotic, at least as far as preparation methods are concerned. Baking, sautéing, stir frying, steaming and even microwaving have hit the radish cooking circuit.

Whether radishes reach the kitchen from the backyard garden or from the market, they will keep fresh longer if the tops are removed before storing them in the refrigerator. (Incidentally, the tops, if fresh and green, are completely edible and can be cooked like other greens or used in soups.) The radishes will wait patiently in the fridge for a week, possibly even two, while the creative radish chef whips up a variety of dishes.

So, let’s get started! The Ingredient Sleuth recommends a few personal favorites for your tasting pleasure:

ROASTED RADISHES: Halve the radishes, drizzle with olive oil, sprinkle with some cinnamon, salt, pepper, garlic powder and herbs of your choosing, roast in a hot (375 to 425 degrees) oven for 15 to 25 minutes, depending on the size of the radishes. A great accompaniment to roasted or grilled meats.

SAUTEED RADISHES: Slice the radishes and sauté in butter for a few minutes, remove from pan, sauté some chopped spinach or arugula or romaine for a few minutes, return the radishes to the pan, season with salt and pepper. Excellent with chicken or fish.

RADISH SALSA: Smash a clove of garlic (with some finely shopped chili pepper, to taste), add some lemon or lime juice, a few chopped tomatoes, a handful of roughly-chopped radishes, half of a sliced red onion, a tablespoon of olive oil and a handful of chopped mint leaves. Refreshingly tasty with corn or bean chips and as a topping for chicken.

RADISH VEGGIE SALAD: Combine thin slices of radish and red onion with chopped tomato, chopped parsley and avocado slices (with a touch of chilies or pepper flakes, if you like things peppery). The tang of the radish with the smoothness of the avocado is lovely in this side dish salad.

RADISH FRUIT SALAD: On a platter or individual serving plates, arrange watermelon cubes, then roughly crumble feta cheese on top, add thinly-sliced radishes, top with freshly-ground black pepper and some chopped mint. Drizzle some citrus juice (lime or orange) and olive oil over everything. For the dog days of summer, a cool explosion of fresh, salty, spicy, peppery and sweet flavors.

Whether it is Christmas time in Oaxaca, Mexico, or the dog days of summer thousands of miles to the north, the radish aims to please! It is sure to deliver a spicy, pick-me-up tang to your meal – and then to assist in digesting the rest of the meal, in gratitude for being invited to the party! It’s not just for the edge of the plate any longer!


Anonymous said...

Your ideas for using radishes sound really good and are so nice and easy. Things that I wouldn't have thought of. I'll give them a try!

Jennifer said...

I can confirm that kids love to grow radishes. We've been doing that for the last few years and our kids run out every day to watch the progress. Plus, they have turned into really good radish eaters with this experience too. They are purists though and just eat the radishes with salt but I really like the sound of some of your recipes and will try them. Thx a bunch,


Marc&Terri said...

What a nice cool idea that last recipe is. It has been SO hot here in DC that we are giving our stove and oven a rest. Cool foods are definitey IN with us right now. Thanks for more good ideas.

Kristi said...

New ways to use radishes. Who knew? It's so heolpful to have a good ingredient sleuth on the job!!! Can't wait to try the ideas!

Lara said...

You inspired us!

Yesterday, we decided to give grilled radishes a try. Actually, what we did was put them in aluminum foil, added some olive oil and butter, some fresh parsley and lemon thyme, salt and pepper. Then we sealed up the foil and put them on the grill for about 20 minutes.

They were FABULOUS!! And so easy. Thanks to you!

Anonymous said...

The last time we were in Switzerland we saw beautiful radishes at the outdoor market. They were completely different than any we had seen before ... don't remember exactly but I think they were kind of multicolored. We asked about them and were told that they are very mild. The next time we go, we will give them a try rather than just walk on by!