I brought these black radishes home from the market for the precise reason that they were so difficult to love. Do you have a friend or family member like that, who constantly seems to wage war with you in a bet to lose your loyalty? We have relationships with food all the time, believe it or not. Maybe you’ve been having an affair with the same chicken salad sandwich from that deli for weeks, and maybe you’ve long since parted ways with kielbasa due to some dramatic falling-out; but still experience fond taste-memories about it from time to time. This post is dedicated to a newer friend, or food, of mine, which I find terribly gruff, abrasive, and, well, difficult to love.
Thanks to heirloom seeds and small farms, I’ve enjoyed many types of radishes in the last few years, realizing that they vary so greatly from the crisp, magenta balls that recall fishing bobbers. These include the striking watermelon radish, dense and spicy Chinese green radish, elegant French breakfast radish, finger-shaped purple and white radishes, and smaller varieties of daikon radish with mint-greenish shading at the top of the root (listen to me on a recent WNYC segment talk shop about cooking daikon). None put up more barriers to being loved than the coarse-surfaced, rotund black radish. These stringently bitter bulbs are coated in a thick skin that resembles a rhinocerous. Their dense, fibrous flesh has a fierce lick of horseradish. Why the hell did anyone cultivate this, when the cheery sparkler radish was just as easy to grow?
Genetic biodiversity is one good answer. It’s the value that was forgotten along with a host of banana varieties now missing. But getting to the root of it (so to speak), black radishes were planted since Medieval times in Europe simply because they’re hardy nutrition in trying climates and times of year. They, like many root vegetables, store exceptionally well throughout the winter. They can be left in the soil for weeks after a frost, to be uprooted and eaten when few fresh vegetables are around. Their thick, tar-like mask of skin protects the icicle-white flesh like armor built for function over fashion.
Now that we can appreciate the black radish for being the way it must be, we might find ways to enjoy its inherent nature. And perhaps, break it out of its tough shell, literally as well as given the conventional recipes for the root. I bought these black radishes from Tamarack Hollow Farm of Vermont at the Union Square Greenmarket, and asked its farmer, Mike Betit, how he liked to cook them. Mike wasn’t a huge fan, admittedly. “I don’t really like radish-y flavor, so I would eat it by mashing it with sour cream or cream cheese,” he said. This creamy, dairy cushion is an excellent way to soften the blow of bitterness from the black radish. It also makes it more smooth and dippable — I asked him if this preparation of his could be a dip or a mash to go with, say, steak, and he replied it could be both.
But I bought three radishes, and I was then determined to find three unique ways to enjoy the root. Over the next week, I managed to make the following trio of preparations:
1. Chopped and roasted with olive oil, sea salt and chili flakes
I don’t know too many root vegetables that don’t taste great like this, and the crisped peaks of the wedges are delightful contrast to the softer, mellowed flesh inside. I preheated the oven to 400 degrees, then peeled and chopped the root to equal-sized pieces. Coated lightly with olive oil, sea salt, and flakes of chili, they were roasted about 20 minutes, with one break to toss them around in the pan in between.
2. Shredded raw with apples, carrots, lemon and mint
Black radishes are a bit spicier and tougher than most types, but combined with the sweetness of carrots and tartness of fresh apples, they’re a pleasant complement. I used lots of fresh lemon juice and let it soak in for a while, along with good olive oil, and finished it with a few mint sprigs for extra refreshment.
3. Roasted in skins, peeled, and mashed with butter
A spin on Mike’s suggestion, with simply butter, salt and pepper. This could lend a hint of flavor if blended with mashed potatoes, or it could be the start of a creamy radish soup if simmered with stock. To concentrate its flavor more, I roasted the radishes in their skins, sliced in half flesh side-down on a pan (like I would a winter squash). After a good 40 minutes or so, the flesh shrinks back and allows the skin to be easily peeled off the bulb once cool (like with beets).
After these dishes, I think I’m well on my way to reconciliation with that most difficult root, black radish. I’m impressed by its versatility, its ability to wear so many hats, and think it might do well simmered in a stew or roasted in great wedges along with a whole chicken, perhaps, next. Here’s to keeping on appreciating all the great virtues about a challenging plant. If you’ve got suggestions for a future “Ode to a difficult food” post — and that can be any food, not just a vegetable — please do go ahead and share your most begrudged kitchen foe in the comments section!