Mixed Messages

Make your radish shine

Wednesday, May 22, 2019

A radish sends mixed messages.

They can look like something designed by Willy Wonka, but taste like mustard gas. In perhaps the ultimate bait-and-switch of the vegetable world, eating a radish can feel like leaning in for a kiss and getting slapped. The key is to get as much mileage out of that slap as you can.

Too often, spring radishes sourced fresh from local farmers markets or pulled from backyard gardens are sliced into salads, which doesn’t offer enough contrast to let them shine. The company of other raw plant parts brings out unflattering sides of a radish, and likewise, it can make the entire salad too harsh.

But it doesn’t take much to let a radish shine. Just a little fresh baguette, and a lot of butter. For hundreds of years prior to the advent of avocado toast, French chefs have laid thin slices of salted radish upon heavily-buttered bread.

It’s a simple recipe, but not at all plain. The radish’s watery, pickle-like crunch adds texture to the yeasty, crusty medium. Disarmed by salt and harnessed by butter, the root’s pungency is put to work, without the slightest foul whiff to be sniffed.

I make radish toast on sourdough, with a few thin slices of onion. The key is to not skimp on the butter, and don’t forget the salt.

Indeed, salt alone makes a big difference with a radish, countering its feisty flavor with an equal but opposing salty force. On cut radish, a pinch of salt pulls droplets of radish water from the white faces. The slices become translucent, like pieces of sushi, and deliver a brief, salty, wasabi-like hit. A simple plate of salted radish makes great palate cleansers between courses. Or soak off the radish water and salt in water. They crisp up a little, but stay mild.

Another way to tame a radish is with heat, in both temperature and spicy senses of the word. Radishes get mellow with cooking, their pungency replaced with sweetness. Spicy heat, meanwhile, fights fire with fire, building a spicy bridge between a radish and the rest of a meal.

In the Himalayas, they employ all of the above radish tactics. Phagshapa is a pork and radish-based dish that uses not only chili but also ginger and onion to convene a pow-wow of pungency. Phagshapa was one of my favorite dishes during a brief time I spent in Bhutan. Thanks to sadomasochistic levels of hot pepper and ginger in a properly prepared rendition, this is not a dish for the faint of heart, mouth, or belly. If I gave you the recipe I would feel responsible for your safety.

But don’t blame the radish for that drama. It is sweet and mellow by serving time, thanks to the cooking. Next to the chili and ginger, the radish is a refuge from the more intense flavors, while contributing a subtle layer of umami. Whatever a radish is cooked in or on—be it pizza, stew or frittata—it has a way of quietly making food taste better without being obnoxious. 

Radish frittata is my new world answer to phagshapa (it even rhymes!), with chopped bacon taking the place of boiled pork. And in a nod to France, my frittata contains butter.

Each solo portion of my frittata consists of a crispy matrix of bacon and grated potato, embedded with sauteed radish slices and whole radish leaves and other select flavorings—a clove of garlic, an appropriate amount of jalapeno or other chopped or crushed hot pepper, a couple of pinches of pepper—and topped with a fried egg (or impregnated with a beaten egg).

We use the radish leaves because they are tender and tasty, contain more nutrients than the roots, and because there is not a single reason not to. Some radish varieties are grown specifically for their leaves, though any radish leaf is worth eating. But not in salad, as some radish leaves can be fuzzy if eaten raw.

In the radish frittata, they add to the matrix, and are a welcome splash of green. My radish frittata may not measure up to a French radish sandwich or Bhutanese phagshapa in terms of pure elegance or cultural importance, but it’s an American-style way to eat radish that borrows from the best, and tastes good with coffee.

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