The Fat of the Land

Month: March, 2014

Radish Revisited

radish

Sprinter of the root vegetables, spring radishes can go from seed packet to salad vegetable in 3-4 weeks. Their bright hues of red, pink and violet are a welcome addition to market displays this time of year, heralding that the season of storage crops is waning. Radishes round the corner first, followed by a pack of tonic vegetables that freshen our palates.

Radishes personify the season. Their juicy crispness, sweet with a hint of spice, seems a direct translation of spring’s temperament: mild coolness, increasing day length, and frequent showers that unleash electric greenness into our hibernating imaginations. Radishes become more bitter and fibrous if their growth is interrupted by heat stress or inconsistent soil moisture, making summer-grown radishes often spicier and pithier. Spring offers nearly effortless conditions for this sumptuous crudité.

The radish has acquired its round shape and vibrant colors only with the help of gardeners. While its early history is largely unknown, the radish likely originated in northern China, from which it spread to India, the Mediterranean, northern Europe and eventually the Americas, where it was one of the first introduced vegetables, hot on the heals of Columbus.

Its original form, like so many domesticated root vegetables, was likely that of a wild annual with a pale, unremarkable taproot. Its four-petaled flower, like its cousin, arugula’s, tickled the tongue with peppery sweetness, its leaves with pungent bitterness. Radishes of all types have fleshy seedpods known as siliques that are edible when tender, tasting something like a spicy radish soul in the body of a green bean. Perhaps it was these curious pods that first attracted gatherers in search of nutritious forage.

We do not know where a journey will take us when we start. Those early gatherers and gardeners of wild radishes would be shocked to see the range of forms the modern radish takes, from cherry-red to green-shouldered, cylindrical to pointed to marble-shaped, bite-sized to 70-pound giants. Some varieties have been selected specifically for their large, tender pods. Radish diversity has been proliferated by the tastes and preferences of the cultures through which it has traveled.

The radish with which we are most familiar today—that bright red button of a root we slice onto salad greens—comes from the work of Dutch and Italian gardeners of the 16th century who began selecting for small, round roots. Up until that time, most European radish varieties looked more like parsnips or elongated beets. The black radish, a variety we see returning to popularity at local markets as a winter vegetable, more closely resembles these medieval European radishes.

Asian cuisines favored taproot shaped radishes, developing a diverse range of varieties that include daikon, a staple of the pickle jar and wok, and shunkyo, a purple, carrot-shaped radish for eating raw. Last season I grew Shunkyo Long for the first time, a variety I bought from Wild Garden Seed. Its root was surprisingly tender and mildly sweet, its leaves smooth (most radish leaves have the texture of worn Velcro) and succulent with a hint of radish flavor delicious cooked or added to salad mix.

Radishes were a revered vegetable in early America. Seed catalogs listed dozens of varieties for each growing season. The whole plant was eaten: young leaves from thinning the radish patch went into the salad bowl, mature greens into soups, sautés, or even pickle brine. From the breakfast table to the sack lunch to refined dinners, the radish’s noble root peppered American meals until the late 20th century relegated them to the category of garnish.

The association of radishes as a raw food has been hard to shake. Many of the old cultivars are coming back into fashion; seed catalogs again offer varieties that stretch a radish-growers imagination beyond the ubiquitous red globe. Chefs have begun to embrace their versatility. But at home (and at the grocery store), their fate still seems locked to the vegetable platter, forever orbiting a bowl of ranch dressing.

I sautéed a radish for the first time two years ago, tossed them briefly in a pan of hot oil, sprinkled them with salt and was charmed by their turnip-like flavor. Last summer, faced with a bumper crop of the cylindrical-shaped French Breakfast variety, I halved them, tossed them in oil and salt and spread them on the grill alongside carrots and scallions. The smoky heat caramelized their surface, gently softened their center, bringing out the distinct sweetness and subtle flavors of these vegetable platter standards, no ranch required.

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Creating Space

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Designing a garden is as simple as following a trail of impulses, selecting the plants and ornaments that inspire you each season, bringing them together in whatever space you have. This is the sort of garden that spills like a bag of candy, one treasured item after another, a collection of colors and textures each equally delightful to its curator.

There is no wrong way to create a garden. If you have not yet begun your own, you will quickly learn once you do that it is less an undertaking than a relationship. I started my first garden as a weekend project; a horticulture degree and seven years of courtship later, my current garden feels like an external organ through which I experience the place I live. Gardening has become for me a conversation, one in which I have learned how to listen even more than how to speak.

Historically, gardens have served a range of purposes. The first gardens were also the first farms—patches of wildness where choice plants were encouraged to proliferate. The first gardeners protected their chosen plants by removing competing species or manipulating irrigation. The art of propagation flowed out of this impulse, when the plant protectors became producers, preparing plots, scattering seeds, dividing and transplanting to create gardens that fit the desires and needs of those who made them.

Wilderness has its own sense of order, one that sometimes corresponds with (and certainly informs) the gardener’s aesthetic. I recall coming upon certain rocky outcroppings scattered with wildflowers as lovely and well-placed as their cultivated counterparts, shaded forest clearings with moss carpeting and artfully branched trees missing only a stone bench or bamboo fountain.

Nature’s order follows us into our gardens, but it does not create them. Gardens are less the plants they contain than the act of planting, of selecting and sculpting sites that, in the words of architect Charles W. Moore, “become gardens only when shaped by our actions and engaged with our dreams.”

Gardens can be highly sophisticated places, requiring great knowledge and skill to shape and maintain. Such gardens come from refined intention: an imagined ideal put into action. They seem to glow with the balance of stillness and movement, stasis and change. Like a song or a painting, they transport us from the place we stand into the dream that created them.

Gardens go feral, return to nature’s custody by way of overgrown weeds, drought, defacement. We lose interest; life gets in the way. We strive for our gardens and they often seem many steps ahead of our efforts. Part of the conversation is defining limits: what you can offer, what brings you pleasure. Each time you ask the answer will be different.

I’ve found balance in my own garden by cultivating ritual from the elements that please me most: bending down to smell the winter daphne each time I pass it during the month it blooms, clearing my thoughts on a surprise sunny day in February while pulling out the last autumn weeds and cutting back dormant perennials, eating late summer suppers amid the lush garden at dusk. Like the first spring pea, the first juicy bite of a garden tomato, I wait for these moments each year. They have become as much a part of my calendar as holidays and anniversaries.

Your garden is yours. You are the one who sees its invisible virtues. Spring nudges it awake, but it is your dream that gives it breath.