Radish Revelation

What was once an also-ran takes top billing in the garden and at the table.

Linda Lehmusvirta April 22, 2011

Dawn greets Dorsey Barger as she harvests the radishes that expectant diners hope to find on Eastside Cafe's "Chef's Specials" menu in a few hours. Besides featuring in crudité platters, radishes are roasted for sweetness and their leafy tops sautéed for customers who never thought they'd clamor for more.

Radishes were not on the menu in 1988 when co-owners Barger and chef Elaine Martin opened Eastside Cafe in a 1920s bungalow in Austin, Texas. Even though they grew harvest-to-table vegetables in Eastside's 1/3-acre organic garden, Barger notes: "I think most people had the same experience that I had with radishes, which was that you got the requisite cafeteria two slices on your salad. They were bitter and pretty much a garnish that everyone pushed to the side."

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Then, in 2005, Barger had a radish revelation. At The Girl & The Fig, a restaurant in Sonoma, California, she sampled heirloom 'French Breakfast' radishes dabbed with butter and sea salt. She was amazed by the "most fabulous flavors imaginable; explosions of flavors and crunches, sweetness, and tartness. Just the perfect single bite of food."

Today, radishes in all of their variety feature in Eastside's organic garden. A favorite is 'Watermelon', also called 'Red Meat', an heirloom from China. "I call it the gateway radish, because even people who absolutely hate radishes love 'Watermelon'. It's a little sweeter than any radish I've ever tasted but still has some heat," Barger says.

Radishes were such a hit that patrons rooted for more of Martin's crudité platters teamed with zesty Anchovy Herb Butter Dip. Barger expanded her radish repertoire to add the diverse flavors and colors of 'White Icicle', 'Easter Egg', and 'Ping Pong'. And, of course, the classic 'French Breakfast' that led to the radish revival.

Planting How-To
Radishes are cool-weather brassicas grown from seed. To avoid bitter harvests, sow seed early enough so that plants mature before temperatures exceed 80°F. Since they're root crops, radishes need loose, well-drained soil in full to partial sun. Barger adds new compost at each sowing, without additional fertilizer. Seeds are small, so sow shallowly, cover lightly with soil, and keep watered until seed germinates. "You can pretty much forget about them after that," says Barger.

Thin seedlings according to packet instructions. Radishes are speedy growers (20 to 50 days, depending on variety), and Barger, gardening in Zone 8, repeat-sows from September to March, then sows again in the spot just harvested, renewed with more compost.

Harvesting
"Radishes are neat because they give you a sign when they're ready, and lift up out of the ground. Harvest early for tenderness and sweetness. You don't want to harvest too late; radishes start to split after they've reached peak maturity," Barger advises. Plus, harvesting late leads to pithy or "hot" radishes.

To clean, Barger conserves water and soil by washing on-site. Since she's harvesting gallons, she rigged an old table with a mesh bin. For the home gardener, a colander will do. Barger's first rinse with the hose returns soil and water to the garden. Once the radishes are in Eastside's kitchen, she soaks them briefly in the sink and then gives them a quick rub to remove any specks of grit. To use the leaves, soak them for 5 minutes to let any fine silt particles fall to the bottom of the sink. Drain, dry, and cook.

Dealing with Insects
Flea beetles and aphids can be a nuisance on leaves. Blast off aphids with the hose, if lady beetles or green lacewings don't get them first. Barger doesn't worry about flea beetles that gnaw holes in the leaves. "The damage is cosmetic, so I don't treat for them. I hate to spray anything. Since we sauté our radish greens with collards, kale, bacon, and onions, the holes go completely unnoticed," she says.

Using Radishes
Radishes can be refrigerated for a week or more but are best used as soon as possible.

Barger's latest radish sensation is also simple and lets their crisp freshness shine: She slices them thinly on a mandoline, then tosses the slices in fresh lime juice and a sprinkling of sea salt.

To bring out the natural sugars, roast radishes like any root crop: Halve or quarter them, toss in olive oil with a sprinkle of sugar, and roast at 375°F for 10 to 15 minutes or until fork tender.

For simple pickling, slice radishes uniformly into a jar of apple cider vinegar and a bit of salt. They'll be good for months in the refrigerator. For shelf-stable pickling, do a water bath.

"And do not throw away your radish tops! We love them and serve them at the restaurant. Sauté in just a little olive oil with some onion and bacon. They're delicious," Barger says.

Rather than pushing radishes aside, go radish radical with morsels of flavor packed into dreamy colors to flavor cool weather with savory heat. With such quick harvests, any gardener can serve up radishes in an especially tasty short order.

Anchovy Herb Butter Dip
2 sticks unsalted butter, softened
1/8 cup fresh parsley, chopped
1/2 teaspoon lemon zest
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1 to 2 teaspoons anchovy paste
Pinch of crushed red pepper
1/2 teaspoon fresh garlic
1 teaspoon olive oil

1. Combine the butter, parsley, lemon zest, and salt in a bowl and set aside.

2. Gently sauté the anchovy paste, crushed red pepper, and garlic in the olive oil in a skillet over low heat for 5 minutes, being careful not to brown the garlic.

3. Combine the butter and anchovy mixtures and serve. Keeps covered, in an airtight container, in the refrigerator for up to 3 days. Makes about 1 cup.