The first time I bought a black radish, shortly after moving from San Francisco to New York, I was excited. A real local winter vegetable! How odd and interesting it is, with its pitch black exterior and snow white interior! Then I ate it. It tastes like New York in the winter: tough, impossibly bitter, barely tolerable. It fights you. It does not want you to eat it. I did not have a good first winter in this city.
I haven’t gotten to the point where winter in New York doesn’t spin me into a toilet bowl whirlpool of depression, but I have at least figured out how to prepare this shithead of a radish.
As we move past the harvest season into the long, cold, garbage winter, things get harder for cookers of vegetables. As the ground freezes, the pantry narrows. We must rely on the supermarket and on produce grown in Argentina and Mexico and (ugh) California. We must used canned and frozen and packaged things. But the farmers markets are still selling a few items, and while most are not as pretty and inspiring as the produce of just a few weeks prior, there is one vegetable that stands out, vibrant in texture and flavor and even color, a vegetable that nobody seems to really care about: the winter radish.
Winter radishes are not like the ones you see Instagrammed in summer; these are not the delicate French Breakfast radishes or multicolored Easter Egg radishes, but the tougher, sometimes spicier, hardier varieties like daikon, watermelon, and black radish. They grow through the winter, one of the very few vegetables that not only survives the frost but craves it. It is worth learning how to manipulate the winter radish and bend it to your will, because for one thing, it can be very delicious, and for another, it’s very healthy, packed full of vitamin C and zinc and phosphorus and fiber.
There are four types of winter radish you will likely encounter at the market:
Black Radish: Rough and black on the globular outside, pure white on the inside, the black radish is the spiciest and toughest of the bunch, and the most difficult to work with. It should never be sliced and eaten raw as a summer radish would; you will regret this if you try.
White/Green Daikon Radish: A favorite of Japanese, Chinese and Korean cuisine, the daikon itself comes in lots of different colors and shapes, but generally the radishes marketed as daikon are an elongated pale radish that can grow to an enormous size. It’s mild in flavor, but more dense than summer radishes, and is often pickled.
Purple Daikon: My personal favorite winter radish, this is a shorter, more squat variety of daikon that appears a pale purple on the outside, sometimes two-toned, but on the inside looks as if a purple firework exploded. It is a little sweeter than most white daikons, and due to its prettiness is excellent for crudite.
Watermelon Radish: Also actually a variety of daikon, the watermelon radish is a little spicier and tougher than the purple daikon, but has as curious a coloring — pale green on the outside and rich pink on the inside, hence its name.
The Greens Are Good
Winter radishes are often sold loose, without the greens, but if you can snag a whole bunch, do it. Radish greens are one of the best parts of the whole vegetable, but, like carrot and beet greens, go bad in, like, a day and a half, so I like to preserve them in some way as soon as I get them home. My preferred method is a pesto: Wash the greens carefully, then throw in a food processor with some olive oil and maybe a little garlic (nuts, like pine nuts or walnuts, are fine but not essential). They make an excellent addition to any pasta dish or as a base for a soup.
Another good option is a saag. First, chop the radish greens into pretty small pieces — you don’t want big leaves here, so make sure nothing’s bigger than maybe an inch square. Put them in a colander and wash thoroughly; they are usually real dirty. In a heavy pot, like a dutch oven, saute a few cloves of garlic, a chopped chile (I like Thai bird’s eye), a chopped half of an onion, and a knob of ginger in oil until soft. Add in turmeric and cumin and stir until fragrant, then throw in the radish greens. Add in a splash of stock (chicken or veg), stir, cover, and turn the heat down to low, and cook them low and slow until tender. Serve with rice or naan.
I like using the white daikon for this. Pre-heat your oven to 375 degrees. Using a mandoline — because this is a real pain in the ass with a knife — slice the daikon into very thin rounds. Put them all in a bowl and very lightly dress them with olive oil, salt, and pepper. It will be tempting to use a lot of oil, the way you would for, say, sweet potatoes, but don’t. For some reason, using too much oil will cause them to burn. Lay them out on a baking tray, being careful not to over-crowd, and bake for maybe twelve to fifteen minutes, flipping them halfway through. Watch them carefully; they’ll burn really, really easily. When done they should be golden brown and crispy.
Radish Noodle Salad
Both the purple daikon and the watermelon radish are beautiful when raw, but sort of less so when cooked: Their colors tend to blend together and get a bit muddy after you pickle or roast them or whatever. So I like to, at least sometimes, keep them raw. First, bring a small pot of water to boil, and cook a regular package of shitty college-student ramen, without the flavor packet. Drain the ramen and cool in the fridge while you make the rest of the dish. Heat a cast iron pan on the stove to medium-low and pour in a bunch of sesame seeds, toasting just a couple minutes, until browned and fragrant. Take one purple daikon and one watermelon radish, or whatever combination you want, and slice in half lengthwise, then slice thinly width-wise, so you have thin half-moons of radish. Do the same with a carrot or two. Then make your vinaigrette: Take a microplane and grate a knob of ginger into a small container, then pour in some rice wine vinegar, some brown sugar, some chile paste, and a couple drops of sesame oil. Shake to combine. When your ramen has cooled, toss the ramen, radish, carrot, sesame seeds, and dressing together, and let sit for a little while to let the flavors combine. Eat cold. (This goes well with cubed tofu, especially baked tofu, which you can make yourself or just buy at Trader Joe’s.)
I prefer to pickle white daikon, just because it’s less pretty when raw, but any kind of daikon will do. (Watermelon radishes turn bright fuschia when you pickle them, which is kind of cool, but they don’t look like watermelons anymore.)
The Vietnamese pickle daikon and carrot, sometimes together, as one condiment, called đồ chua, which I have no idea how to pronounce. It’s usually served with rich meats, which is why it has found a natural home in one of the world’s perfect sandwiches, the banh mi. It’s a fantastically easy refrigerator pickle. To make: slice daikon and/or carrot into thin matchstick-like slices and put in a colander. Sprinkle with about a teaspoon of salt and a teaspoon of sugar, then them let sit in your sink; some of the vegetables’ water will begin to leak out. Squeeze them to get as much out as you can — there’ll be a lot — and put in a glass container of some sort. Then make your pickling liquid, which is about as simple as it gets: two parts regular white vinegar, two parts water, and one part white sugar. Stir to dissolve the sugar, then pour over the daikon and/or carrot. Let them sit for a couple hours at least, but preferably for a few days. They’ll keep for about a month, and will go well on basically anything: sandwiches, salads, as a topping on meats or fish, or as a salad by themselves with some crushed peanuts and herbs (mint, cilantro, basil).
The Black Radish
I have made black radish salad (disgusting, horrible), black radish mash (watery, bad), black radish pickles (tough, woody), and black radish roast (still too spicy, not tender enough). The black radish may be the toughest single ingredient to work with you can find at a farmers market in New York. But! One way I’ve used it that worked came from my own heritage. The Ashkenazic Jews, connoisseurs of shitty root vegetables and fatty cuts of meat, have figured out a way to use this donkey of the vegetable world in a way that makes total sense: treat it like horseradish.
To make, first get near a window, or set up a fan, or something; the fumes from the black radish are intense and painful. Get out a box grater and grate a few radishes finely. Do the same with an onion. Take a break to scrub your eyes because they will be hurting, like, really bad at this point, despite your fan and your window. Wrap up in a couple layers of paper towel and squeeze some of the water out, then add salt and pepper and some sort of fat. The traditional fat would be schmaltz, which is highly seasoned rendered chicken fat, but if you don’t have schmaltz around — and unless you’re my great-uncle Aaron there’s a pretty fair chance you don’t have schmaltz around — you can just use olive oil. Mix until the consistency is somewhere between tuna salad and hummus.
Black non-horse-radish, as I have decided to call this, is WEIRDLY AMAZING. It’s spicy and aggressive, contributing the same zing that horseradish or wasabi does, but it’s smoother and sweeter; I actually think it might be better. It goes with anything that’s rich: mix it into hummus, serve it with fatty meats like brisket, spoon it on top of a burger. Mix it with sour cream or creme fraiche or Greek yogurt to make a black non-horse-radish cream, and drizzle over roasted potatoes or serve in a little dipping cup for crudites. Dip a raw radish into your radish cream! Double your radish! Mix the black non-horse-radish cream with dill and dollop it on top of salmon. Mix some into a deviled egg recipe. The possibilities are limitless!
The black radish is a tough introduction to the winter radish family; it is a total dick. But its winter radish cousins, the various types of daikon, are not like this: they are mild and even sweet, gentle and beautifully colored. They are excellent raw, in salads or with cold noodles, and take better to pickling than almost any other vegetable. Do not abandon the farmers market just yet, is what I’m saying; there are still some gems to be had. And also black radishes.
Photo by Shihmei Barger 舒詩玫