In 1974, writing in “On Food,” James Beard talked of being smitten with radishes; a novice gardener, he favored them pulled and eaten straight from the ground (though he also declared them something of an epiphany when served with bread and butter or wrapped in a single anchovy fillet). There, his adoration was of spring radishes, the petite cherry-red and pink-tipped icicle varieties sold at markets in tidy bunches when the chill finally starts to slink away, as demure in flavor as their looks suggest.
But in the same essay, Beard also mentioned “huge, black radishes,” which he recommended grating and combining with chicken fat or goose fat as a spread for bread. Though he didn’t specify, Beard’s black radishes probably were a Spanish heirloom variety harvested in the cooler months of fall and winter, part of a family of robust winter radishes that cooks and growers are just beginning to rediscover.
Delicately crisp and lightly hot, spring radishes are a tease of what a radish can be. They are charming in their way, relevant to other equally understated flavors and textures of their season. But radishes are at their most pronounced, and their most versatile, in fall and winter. The return chill of autumn brings variety: pastel-painted German and Chinese heirlooms and juicy, miniature daikons in fade-out lime green. They differ so greatly in character from spring radishes as to seem another vegetable entirely. They eschew subtlety with dense, crisp flesh, a faintly nutty sweetness and an untamed heat that, depending on the variety and growing conditions, can vary from mildly spicy to wildly pungent.
Yet despite their assertiveness (or perhaps thanks to it), winter radishes, too, revel in minimalism. A plate of the Misato Rose radish, sliced thin, drizzled with a buttery olive oil and scattered with flaky sea salt, doesn’t want for more. Its interior color, vivid in kaleidoscopic fuchsia, precludes any need to fuss over presentation. And there are few livelier (and simpler) midwinter additions to a tangle of vinaigrette-dressed chicories or a lentil salad than wedges of whatever winter radish you happen to have on hand.
At the same time, winter radishes can stand up to bold treatments, such as braising, roasting, sauteing and fermenting, that spring radishes are less obliged to tolerate. Of the latter, British food journalist Nigel Slater, writing in “Tender” (Ten Speed Press, 2011), admonishes readers to “ignore any suggestions of cooking them. The writer is clearly deluded.” Exposed to heat, a winter radish mellows; its firm interior yields to tender and meaty. It’s the sort of vegetable you want in winter, whose usual committee of root crops, earthy and modest, speak in mild-mannered tones. They comfort the palate but don’t always inspire, although undoubtedly there are celery root and Jerusalem artichoke enthusiasts who would disagree. Winter radishes are flashy by comparison, a protest against cold-weather culinary monotony; if you strive to keep your kitchen seasonal, they are indispensable.