So pure, so simple — so uncommonly common that we tend to take them for granted, these cheerful early harbingers of first harvests and local eating can spice up your dinner, and your whole day, in a heartbeat.
Bright and happy, radishes were the first things we kids learned to plant in crooked little rows in the rich, black garden soil of Edmonton. They meant winter was officially dead.
If you think about it, radishes are the perfect kid-sized garden starter. First of all, they — meaning both radishes and kids — shoot up amazingly fast. In the case of radishes, though, it can be as little as a 21-day growth cycle, so youngsters could almost take a little stool and sit in the garden rows and watch them grow.
Then, who doesn't love yanking something delicious out of the ground, washing it in the hose, and munching it down? The bits of dirt make it taste even better.
Carrots, of course, also make the grade for gardeners-in-training. But they take so long to mature that in the life of a seven- or 11-year-old it seems like forever.
But radishes? They're here and now. Plus they're so young in spirit; bright little balls, playful in shape and name. Ping Pongs — pure white, and as much fun as the game. The artfully named red Rovers that should make every dog lover smile. Electric purple Amethysts. And Easter Egg radishes, not really a variety but rather a mixture of seeds that yields red, white and purple mini-globes in one go.
For the more sophisticated in life (not necessarily adults for I'm always amazed when I hear stories of young ones throwing together a crème brûlée or steak poivre these days) try some long, French "breakfast" radishes, also quick to pick-ability in 21 days.
Long and cylindrical in shape, these little beauties are white and red on the outside with a lovely tender heart, provided they've been grown properly. Radishes left in the ground too long or ones that suffer a hot spell get woody and pithy, and this variety is especially susceptible.
Debates circulate as to why they're called "breakfast" radishes. Not that I've spent years in France, but I have been there for month-long stints more than once and I've never seen them eaten for breakfast. Maybe the idea started with some long ago tourist who had them for brekkie with olives and cheese. Not a bad idea.
Either way, they're perfectly shaped for salt dipping, one of those forgotten "simple pleasures" once enjoyed by many, including my granddad. So get yourself a little dish of salt and find out why. Use good salt if you can, like Malden out of England or — what else for French breakfast radishes? — a little dish of coarse, grey, unrefined sea salt (fleur de sel) from Brittany. Yum. Another raw radish enhancer is that old hippie stand-by, Spike (the original recipe).
You can step up your radish game, French or otherwise, by slicing them on to a piece of buttered baguette or good white bread. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. A simply perfect, and perfectly healthy, snack.
For radishes are good for us, whatever their form — and they come in many more. The round black Nero Tondo from Spain. The nippy but sweet Shunkyo from North China. The big, chunky, white Japanese daikon, good cooked or raw, with ginger and soy sauce, or pickled. And don't forget peppery radish sprouts, maybe the healthiest of all.
In their various forms throughout time and many geographic locations, radishes have been very generous to we humans. Archeological evidence shows that radishes were gathered from the wild and used as a staple vegetable by very early peoples in Europe. Ancient Romans enjoyed radishes, as did the Greeks, whose name for "radish" means "rapid-growing."