Winter radishes

Celebrate the last of the season

March 28, 2011

The first time I encountered a watermelon radish, I confused it with a turnip. For weeks, I raved about this unusual turnip — the one with the creamy exterior and the rosy middle — to produce-enthusiastic friends. Finally, one Sunday at the farmers’ market, I pointed them out to my friend Kate.

“Oh, these?” she laughed. “They’re radishes. But yeah, they’re great!”

watermelon radish
Watermelon radishes have pink striations inside.

In my defense, sturdy watermelon radishes — one of many heirloom radish varieties, in this case a type of daikon — arguably have more in common with turnips than with the more familiar dainty French breakfast and cherry belle radishes.

Those crisp spring varieties are certainly delicious, but they’re tame when compared with their cold-weather cousins. Winter radishes feature dense, nutty, alluringly spicy flesh and a startling range of colors.

First comes the watermelon radish, with its glamorous interior; sometimes the inside is a vibrant fuchsia, sometimes a softer pastel pink. There are also pungent black Spanish radishes, German Hilds Blauer (more purple than blue), Chinese green meat, and China Rose radishes.

In the mid-Atlantic region, where I live, these heirloom radishes start showing up in markets when the leaves begin to turn, and stick around until summer starts nosing in. But they’re at their sweetest during the chill of winter, when the cold helps to convert all of the radishes’ starches into sugar.

Years ago, when I first discovered winter radishes, I just sprinkled them with salt or smeared them with fancy French mayonnaise. Occasionally they made it into a salad; they mingle especially well with escarole and avocado. Then I realized how well they take to pickling, and now I always reserve a few for my favorite pickle recipe.

Nowadays, I often grate my winter radishes into a small heap, toss them with brown rice vinegar, and sprinkle them with toasted black sesame seeds. Sometimes I’ll julienne or shave them straight into a jumble of soba noodles.

Yes, you can cook radishes (including their greens), but I prefer them raw, and served simply. They’re radishes, after all, which means less is always more.

Related recipe: Winter Radish Salad

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