Food & Drink » Glenda Bartosh on Food

The lovely, lowly radish

The underground veg that flies under the radar

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Maybe they're overlooked because they're so cheap and easy to grow. Maybe they're overlooked because they're so cheap and easy to buy! Whatever the reason, my pick for The Overlooked (building on last week's theme) is the simple, simply gorgeous radish.

Growing up in Edmonton, just about every yard in the neighbourhood had a vegetable garden, and that meant a big square of dirt. No looping flowerbeds planted with pretty perennials. Nope, just big square-ish plots of gorgeous black dirt that had been worked and composted and worked again with pitchfork, rake and shovel, or, maybe if you were posh, a Rototiller rented from Sears.

When the planting came, row upon straight row, radishes and potatoes were the first things in. Radishes were the first up, by a long shot. In fact, you could plant all kinds of radishes in the troughs alongside the rows of potatoes because they'd be all grown up and picked long before the potato plants filled in.

Easy to grow and easy to pull out, you weren't a bona fide raider of gardens — one of the highlights of Alberta's long, early summer evenings — until you stole a handful of fresh radishes from a neighbour's garden, wiped the dirt off on the lawn, and crunched into them, ideally before the owner caught you. Mind you, their kids were out doing the same thing...

In school years, it was radishes planted in schoolyard boxes or radish seeds started in tin cans with nail-holes punched in the bottoms so every kid could take one home, water it and see what happened.

Perfect for kids with their limited attention spans (and that was pre-digital!). Radish seeds can germinate in three or four days. The growing cycle can be as short as three weeks, so they can eat what they grow before they forget what that tin can is all about. (Bigger ones, like daikons, can take a couple of months to mature.)

No, they're not exotic or rare, and they will never be a trophy food that foodies flock to. But that's exactly why radishes qualify as The Overlooked. They grow just about everywhere in the world, and they're pretty forgiving about conditions. You can even find varieties in the tropics.

As far as botanists can tell, they were domesticated in Europe long before the Romans arrived, but their roots are likely in western Asia. From there, they spread to the Mediterranean region by the time of ancient Greece, Egypt and Rome. In fact the Greek name for "radish" means "rapid-growing."

Most of us in North America think of the bright red little balls with the white centres and sharp, piquant flavour as the classic radish. The way a fresh bunch looks set off by their bright green leaves should qualify them for an Overlooked award based on looks alone (pun intended).

But there are also Ping Pong radishes — pure white little balls. Spanish and German varieties with black or white skins that can be a couple of inches across and are delicious braised or roasted. The long, mild French "breakfast" radishes, also quick to grow to pick-ability in 21 days, are delicious dipped in salt. (Try a good one like Malden salt from England or coarse sea salt from France.)

Easter Egg radishes are not really a variety but rather a mixture of seeds that yields red, white and purple radishes in one go. There's the nippy but sweet Shunkyo from northern China. The classic, chunky, relatively mild white daikon radish we normally associate with Japanese and Korean cuisines was actually bred in China. You'll find dozens of recipes online for using daikons but, in a nutshell, their mild flavour makes them good cooked or raw, with ginger and soy sauce, or pickled.

So there's lots to explore with this common veg. You don't have to save them for a salad or serving with dip on a veggie platter. Try slicing your radishes, French or otherwise, on to a piece of buttered baguette or good white bread. Sprinkle with salt and pepper.

If the zingy flavour bugs you — it's a treat to the rest of us radish-lovers — try peeling their skins, where most of the enzyme resides that makes for the peppery, mustard-oil effect. Cooking radishes will also render a milder flavour. As for braising and roasting them, it's the firmer, dryer ones like the Nero Tondo from Spain that will turn out best.

But maybe the most overlooked part of radishes is how good they are for us. Peppery radish sprouts may be the healthiest of all. But the globes, which are really just a swollen part of the plant's stem, are low in calories and high in a surprisingly large number of vitamins and minerals, including C, B6 and potassium.

Another overlooked tidbit: radish greens are even more nutritional and as good, if not tastier, than the radish itself. So when you pick out a bunch at your favourite farmers' market or local grocery store, make sure the greens are as good as the rest. Wash the leaves well and slice them thinly into your salad for an interesting, peppery note much like watercress. If you're lucky enough to find Shunkyo radishes from northern China, a favourite grown by some Sea to Sky farmers, their edible leaves are good raw or stir-fried.

Now off you go to find yourself a bunch of great radishes. With luck, you'll never think about them the same way again.

Glenda Bartosh is an award-winning journalist who loves to grow radishes.

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