The Fat of the Land

Month: January, 2015

Digging for Flavor

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Those who are drawn to the unfamiliar vegetables tucked between baskets of potatoes and onions, frills of kale and glossy collards, may have already plucked a winter radish from the sidelines, brought it home and sliced it, wondered what in the world to make of it. Unlike spring radishes with their apple-crisp flesh and mild bite, winter radishes stump most of us the first (or third or fifth) time we bravely endeavor to turn them into something desirable.

The only straightforward part of a winter radish (also called storage radish) is its challenges: dense, dry flesh, pungent spice, and a flavor profile whose most flattering description could be summed up with the word medicinal. Salt them for softness and they’ll exude characteristic brassica sulfur. Eat them raw and they’ll set fire to your throat. Roast them and their flesh goes watery.

Three varieties of winter radish predominate our local markets: black Spanish, daikon, and watermelon. Daikon, white and cylindrical like a giant, ghostly carrot, is a mainstay in most Asian cuisines, served pickled, raw, or cooked. Daikon takes on a slightly skunky (in a good way) flavor in the pickle jar, tempered by chili pepper heat (as in kimchee), or, in Japanese takuan, by the addition of sugar, kombu seaweed, and persimmon peels.

Watermelon radish, a round daikon type with light green skin and fuchsia center, is the best contender for raw eating. Their appealingly brilliant pigment will dull if cooked or bleed into the brine if pickled. Thinly sliced, their silky flesh is more palatable than the others. Good looks, however, do not tame their spice; try tossing them with shredded cabbage and apples for a zesty slaw or plate them with segmented citrus and a dousing of sweet vinaigrette to lighten up a dark January supper.

Black radishes, least common of the bunch, look downright mysterious huddled together in a market basket. Their russeted skin, thick and coal black, creates the illusion of depth, as if their pigment starts in our world and ends in another. Its contrast with the bright white inner flesh is as appealing, to my aesthetic, as pink-hearted watermelon radish. Given the tag ‘Spanish,’ black radishes are more common in eastern and northern Europe, where they are fermented with sauerkraut or salted and rinsed for fresh salads.

Black radish flavor is undisputedly an acquired taste. So spicy they are referred to in French markets as Parisian horseradish, raw applications can be tricky. As I prefer spice to sulfur, I usually trade salting for knife work. Sliced into matchsticks, their bite is manageable, especially next to something sweet. One of my favorite combinations is a salad of pear slices, Treviso chicory, and slivers of black radish tossed in rice wine vinaigrette, salt, and pepper. Grating helps; try adding a handful to mustard-and-vinegar-dressed potato salad topped with chives and parsley, or submerge them in sugary quick pickle brine and serve (for contrast) alongside fatty meat.

For those who find no charm in penetrating radish heat, cooking is the best option. Though their fibrous flesh gets a bit soggy when roasted whole, you won’t notice if you add it to a root vegetable mash. Quarter-inch slices sautéed in butter until they’re browned are surprisingly sumptuous—their spice subdued, their texture tender and meaty. Toss with sesame or nut oil and steamed chard for a purifying side. Paper-thin slices oiled and salted make delicious oven-roasted chips.

When something is so seemingly difficult to love (or make delicious), allure may not be enough incentive. Why go to such lengths for these musky roots? Called storage radishes because of their ability to linger in the crisper drawer (or root cellar) months after fall harvest, these radishes are a reliable winter vegetable, carried over from a time that pre-dates international food distribution. Perhaps most compelling to our health-oriented present is their astonishing nutritional profile. Particularly high in vitamin C, winter radishes are known to stimulate bile function, improving the digestion of fats and starches. Black radishes are especially powerful as a liver and gall bladder tonic.

As much as summer, in its quick abundance, obliges us to sit outdoors among the neighbors popping tomato slice after easy slice, winter, with its cold days and lingering darkness, forces introspection. Is it any surprise that its vegetables ask the same? Or that, as with many winter tasks, our efforts yield subtle rewards?

Kings of Winter

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We don’t think much of cabbage these days. It’s there; we buy it, shred and dress it into slaws, add it to winter soups, boil it for St. Patrick’s Day. As vegetable eaters, we generally gravitate towards lighter fare—tender salad greens or frilly kale. But cabbage, in all its juicy heft, was once an indispensable crop, especially in winter, when these nutrient-dense heads fed families and their livestock through a time of year when fresh vegetables were threateningly scarce.

Cabbage belongs to an extensive vegetable family known as the brassicas. Ranging from leafy kales and spicy mustards to geometric Romanesco and many-cabbaged Brussels sprouts to root crops like turnips and radishes, brassicas make up a good deal of all but summer’s vegetable patch.

They are varying degrees of hardy, some (mostly kales) able to withstand deep cold tucked away in a snowdrift. Many more brassicas tolerate our mild, if soggy, maritime Northwest winters. The sort of cold we do get generally improves winter brassicas—each drop in temperature instructing cells to infuse their watery interiors with sugar. Since sugar solution freezes at a lower temperature than water, the plants avoid ruptured cells; we get sweeter greens.

Farmers plan for January and February harvests in July and August. Winter requires strategy because few vegetables are able to grow at a rate that allows continuous harvest once day length drops to ten hours or less (early November through early February at our latitude). What a farm field will lack in regenerative ability farmers must make up for in volume, planting much larger patches of winter greens than they would of the same greens intended for spring harvests, and early enough that they are nearing a harvestable size by November.

Cabbage adds another layer of strategy to the game, especially in colder regions where it must be harvested before the first hard freeze. Tightly packed heads of thick, waxy leaves keep for weeks, even months, in optimum post-harvest conditions. In bygone eras, that would have been a root cellar: cool, humid chamber where the air circulates slowly and the earthen floor absorbs condensation. Today’s farmers use walk-in coolers or insulated storage rooms. At home, we have refrigerators. I’ve successfully kept whole cabbages, patted dry and enclosed in a plastic bag, for two months or more, opening them occasionally to prevent spoiling by toweling off any condensation built up inside the bag.

Cabbage stores even longer as sauerkraut, the result of a fermentation process that utilizes salt to draw moisture from shredded leaves, creating brine that essentially pickles them. Fermented cabbage takes on salty, sour, sometimes buttery qualities, keeping for months in the refrigerator. An ancient technique discovered independently by the Chinese (as long as 6,000 years ago) and the Romans, sauerkraut as we know it today was likely introduced to eastern Europe by invading Mongols. Europeans adapted the ferment to indigenous cabbage varieties and their preferred seasonings, and sauerkraut was born.

Cabbage flavor is dominated by two compounds—raw cabbage’s spicy bite comes from glucosinolates and the sulfurous flavor and odor of cooked cabbage from hydrogen sulfide gas released when the leaves are exposed to continuous heat. Glucosinolates, present in raw, cooked, or fermented cabbage, are the subject of much scientific investigation; preliminary studies show an ability to reduce some types of cancerous growth on rodent organs. Whether or not it prevents cancer, cabbage is an excellent source of vitamins C and K, as well as dietary fiber.

Cabbage may be medicinal, but it doesn’t have to taste like it. Avoid the sulfurous side of its flavor spectrum by keeping down the heat. Hydrogen sulfide increases dramatically between the 5th and 7th minutes of high-heat cooking (boiling). If you must boil cabbage, cut it into strips and do so for less than five minutes. Alternatives that keep away cabbage’s potentially off-putting stink include stir-frying, roasting, shallow simmering or braising. Splashes of citrus and vinegar help hide all of cabbage’s strong flavors, as do powerful spices like caraway, cumin, black pepper, ginger, and hot peppers.

Winter is prime time for cabbage, as cold weather and ample moisture help moderate the production of sulfurous compounds, and sugars built up during repeated frosts smooth out the raw leaves’ bite. Let yourself be seduced by a beautiful winter cabbage, let it compel you to take it home, even if you’re not sure what to do with it. And know that it will wait, tucked safely in the fridge, until the right time comes for you to discover it.

(To start, check out these seven different—and delicious—ways to prepare cabbage: https://food52.com/blog/5454-7-ways-to-make-cabbage-sexy)