Digging for Flavor

by Sarah West


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?