How I Learned to Appreciate the Humble Radish

These homely inhabitants of the spring garden are surprisingly versatile.

by Jayne Cohen

"The worm in the radish doesn't think there is anything sweeter," Sholem Aleichem wrote.

Well, when I was a child surrounded by radishes just like that worm, I could think of myriad things that were sweeter—or for that matter, more savory.

I tolerated them though, because there was a sweetness in growing them with my grandpa. Like the song in "The Fantastiks" goes, "Plant a radish/Get a radish/Never any doubt."

We planted a variety of seeds.  And while the tomatoes tanked, and the carrots crumpled, the radishes always grew fat and sassy—whether in the rich, fertile beds surrounding the house or in the big stone pots on the porch, where, neglected, they defended themselves valiantly against tough marauders like goldenrod and ragweed. Because radishes, as the lyrics put it, "they're dependable."

Our radishes were in their element around Shavuot, and they'd often make appearances on a dairy table. Usually we cut them up with cucumbers and scallions and combined everything with pot or farmer cheese enriched with pools of sour cream and spiked with fresh ground pepper.  Today just thinking of that dish in a sweltering summer brings instant cool, equal to sense memories of August afternoons in dark movie houses or a round trip ride on the Staten Island ferry. But back then, it was only something to nosh on the way to a blintz.

I felt the same way about the radishes my mom would carve into vague roses and pair with celery and scallions in cut-glass relish trays. And the thinly sliced ones tossed in a romaine and dill salad, dressed with blue cheese. Eating them made me feel virtuous somehow, but in truth, to me they tasted neither good nor bad.

But I became a devoted radish fan a few years ago, when I started noticing the gorgeous ones at my greenmarket: candy-colored Easter egg radishes, skinny French breakfast radishes with rosy faces and white lips, even exotic ones with hot pink and lime flesh striped like a watermelon.

First off, if serving them whole soon after purchasing, you can leave a tiny ribbon of leaf on as a handle. But cut off the rest of the leaves because, as with carrots, they draw off the moisture in the root and begin to shrivel and dry it out. I used to toss out the leaves, but now I sometimes make a light, refreshing soup similar to schav, sorrel soup, from them. The leaves are usually quite sandy, so you'll need to wash them well. Caramelize a slew of yellow onions and then add the leaves and a bunch of scallions. Salt lightly, and cook it all down a bit, stirring. Add broth and simmer until the greens are very soft. Add a handful of fresh spring herbs like mint and dill and seasoning to taste and then purée until smooth with an immersion blender or in a food processor. Serve with a good dollop of labne or yogurt mixed with sour cream combined with salt and more chopped herbs. Last time I finished it with some late-season ramps sautéed in olive oil.

sliced watermelon radish

sliced watermelon radish

To clean radishes, just trim off the beards and rinse well with cool water. If the radishes begin to look peaked, you can revive them in a bowl of water with ice cubes for a couple of hours. To store, dry the cleaned radishes on a dishcloth, then put them in paper towel-lined plastic containers and cover tightly.

My mom was on the right track with the relish trays. As the British vegetable enthusiast Jane Grigson wrote, radishes' "historical, traditional function" has been to "clear the taste and prepare for drink or food." So with aperitifs, I serve them as a healthy, low-calorie alternative to crackers. Cut them very thinly (use fat round ones or watermelon radishes or thinly slice breakfast radishes the long way). Add a squiggle of sweet butter to each slice and top with a Boquerón (Spanish white anchovy cured in vinegar and packed in oil) and a sprinkle of chives. Or just top the buttered radish slice with smoked fish or a bit of good Italian canned tuna and a caper. For appetizers, cover small plates with a film of thinly sliced radishes and arrange smoked fish, chopped onions, capers, and scallions over them. The radish's light peppery bite complements the salty fish beautifully.

If you want to tame that peppery bite, simply toss cut radishes with salt for a while. But that spiciness works really well as a contrast to butteriness. In fact, a favorite European way of eating them is to spread them with sweet butter, then dip into a little bowl of sea salt. 

To make use of their fabulous crunch, add radishes to sandwiches or creamy scoops of chopped liver or egg salad. Mexicans often serve them unadorned as accompaniments alongside everything from a bowl of chicken soup to a plate of fish tacos. They also make a delicious raita, stirred into yogurt and seasoned with Indian spices.

While they are fine in green salads, they really shine when featured as the star of the salad. It's worth getting out your mandolin or the thinnest slicing blade of your food processor to cut them paper-thin and toss with chili powder and lime juice or try olive oil, chopped preserved lemon, chili powder, and sliced oranges. Or shred them for a lovely radish slaw.

And as the temperatures begin to climb, don't forget that dish of radishes with farmer cheese and sour cream.

Jayne Cohen writes and lectures extensively on Jewish cuisine and culture. Her most recent book, Jewish Holiday Cooking: A Food Lover’s Treasury of Classics and Improvisations (John Wiley), was named a finalist for a James Beard Foundation award in the international cookbook category.