When you need an antidote to heavy, gray skies and heavy holiday fare, look no further than the venerable winter radish.
Unlike the fast upstarts of early spring that go from seed to edible in less than a month, winter radishes grow slower, bigger and more beautiful. These are the original radishes — valued for more than a thousand years not only for their taste and nutrition, but because they keep well all winter in a root cellar, cool basement or attic, or in the vegetable drawer of your refrigerator.
In my book, however, their longevity plays second fiddle to their sweet and spicy taste, their satisfying crunch, and their amazing colors that enliven the palette of your plate.
In my many years of farmers market selling, I’ve found that even people who say they do not like radishes cannot resist the roseheart. Also known as beauty heart, misato rose, xin li mei (also transliterated as shin-ri-mei), or watermelon radish, these radishes take a stealth approach. From a distance they look like dumpy, medium-sized turnips. Upon closer inspection, you see that the white exterior has moss-green shoulders. The touch of pink near the root is the only indication of the splendor within.
Slice one open and stand back to admire the deep mauve or fuscia interior with its stunning starburst pattern. After this, let your creativity take you where it will, as the radish is equally good raw or cooked. You can simply peel, slice in wedges and eat. The interior is sweetest, with the spiciness residing closer to the skin. When cooked, winter radishes become even sweeter and meltingly delicious. I like to toss them in the roasting pan with other root vegetables, or chunk them into soups and stews.
Varieties from around the globe
After starting your winter radish habit with the roseheart, move on to the other winter variations — the black radish, German beer radish, daikon and salad rose. All are good raw on their own, or together on a plate of crudités. But they are truly wonderful when roasted, sautéed, or cooked in soups and stir-fries. And if good taste is not enough, winter radishes are good for you too — said to aid digestion, they are low in calories, with a good amount of potassium, vitamin C, folate and fiber.
Black radishes are sooty black on the outside and pure white within. The rock-hard globe grows slowly to the size of a baseball. The crisp white flesh highlights the black skin when sliced, leading to all sorts of fanciful monochromatic creations. Just grab a sharp paring knife or a vegetable peeler and carve or slice strips, stripes and curlicues.
Depending on its growing conditions, the black radish can be as strong as horseradish, and can be used similarly. Use some salt if you want to tame the bite. Or domesticate it completely by turning it into sweet preserves. One of our market customers reports that his Eastern European Jewish family makes delicious radish preserves called Eingemachts with grated black radish cooked in honey or sugar and flavored with ginger.
Next you can move along to the German beer radish. Upon first glance, everyone assumes this large conical root is a turnip. But it is a peppery, turnip-shaped radish that is great salted and eaten as a snack with, yes, beer.
Daikon are a Japanese radish with a crisp, juicy, white flesh. They have a medium bite when raw, but are very mellow when cooked. The name (dai = large or great; kon = root) reveals that this is indeed a large radish — but the more radish, the more you can do with it. My favorite thing is to make daikon oroshi, which is simply Japanese for grated daikon. The grating creates a lot of liquid, but that’s what you want. Just add soy sauce to taste and perhaps a dab of freshly grated ginger if you are feeling extravagant. Daikon oroshi is great with grilled meats or fish, or with grilled, roasted or stir-fried vegetables. Daikon is also wonderful roasted with other roots, or added to soups.
Sweet and Buttery Roseheart Radish
6 medium rose heart radishes, cut into wedges or half moons
2 teaspoons brown sugar
1 teaspoon red wine vinegar
fresh ground black pepper to taste
- Melt the butter in a skillet over medium heat.
- Add radishes and toss to coat. Cover the pan and cook for 4-6 minutes, shaking occasionally.
- Add the sugar and vinegar and toss over medium heat for 1 minute.
- Season to taste with pepper. Serve immediately.
Winter Radish Salad
- Place radish slices in a bowl and sprinkle with the salt. Cover with a heavy plate and refrigerate overnight.
- Drain off all the liquid and wash in cold water in a colander. The slices will be transparent and tender.
- Prepare a dressing by combining the oil, wine vinegar, salt and pepper, and pour over the radishes.
- Refrigerate until ready to serve. Add soy sauce and sesame oil if you want to give the salad an Asian twist.
Photo: Roseheart and black radishes. Credit: Terra Brockman