Radish Aims to Please in a Pod

Rattail radish pods.
Rattail radish pods. (Seed Savers Exchange)
By Barbara Damrosch
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, August 10, 2006

It was the perfect light summer supper from the garden. Angel hair pasta sauced with the first of the French shallots and some locally foraged chanterelles, sauteed together in brown butter and a little sage. On top of that went a small handful of radish pods, lightly crisped in olive oil.

Radish pods? Absolutely. My new summer staple, and one I resisted for years just because the standard variety sounded so off-putting. Who'd rush to make garden space for a vegetable called rattail radish? Finally, my curiosity won out and I sowed a row. It was a delightful surprise. My plants produced succulent pods that looked a bit like green beans, tapering to a thin tail. Nibbled raw they were crunchy like a bean, but with a flavor and a pungent bite just like that of a typical radish root. Some were bright green, others tinged with deep purple. I'd been advised to pick them while still no thicker than a pencil, before they grew long and fibrous, and in fact they were best at skinny-bean size -- like a French filet bean -- and only a few inches long.

All the diverse members of the brassica family -- whether broccoli, kale, cabbage, mustard, arugula or radish -- reveal their kinship when they go to seed. Their flower color may vary from white or cream to yellow or lavender, but the blossoms all have the same arrangement of four petals, followed by the same type of skinny pod (properly called a silique) that enlarges as the seeds within it swell. All brassica flowers are edible and pretty in salads, and theoretically all the pods might be eaten, too, but only radishes of the Caudatus group (the name means "with a tail") have been developed for succulence, tenderness and good flavor.

Edible-pod radishes also are called aerial radishes, or Java radishes after their place of origin, and in general they do not even have the enlarged taproot one associates with radishes. In Germany, a variety named Munchen Bier has both edible pod and root. The large black radish is sliced, buttered and eaten as a snack with dark beer -- as are the pods.

If you try this unusual crop, you will quickly realize how well it solves the summer radish problem. Normal root radishes are tender and sweet in spring and fall, but bolt and turn fibrous and harsh-tasting in hot weather. It is a challenge to keep a succession of plantings going and remember to harvest them while they are young. With pod radishes, on the other hand, your goal is to make the plant bolt, flower and begin to set seed as rapidly as possible. As soon as you see the flowers, start looking for the emerging pods. They will keep producing over the course of many weeks, and if some pods get too large it's no matter -- just pick the pods and discard them as tender little new ones come along.

The one small challenge that pod radishes pose to a gardener is that they need some form of support. If you are used to growing little red radish roots, sown thickly in rows close together, you'll need to shift gears and think of these plants the way you would a broccoli or a kale, set 12 to 18 inches apart in the row. At full size they can grow to four or five feet, and unlike a towering kale or collard, they will have lax stems that sprawl on the ground. They will be much easier to pick if you stake them or trellis them just as you would a tomato; in fact, a tomato cage makes an excellent support. To save seeds for next year, let some pods mature on a few plants that you favor (you might select for the predominance of purple pods this way), but not if other radishes are flowering at the same time. All radishes belong to the same species ( Raphanus sativus ) and the pod type will cross with the root type.

A rattail radish produces kitchen-worthy pods in about 50 days, so there might just be time to slip in a fall crop. You'll be delighted with this vegetable's versatility. Add chopped pods to a salad to give it some zing. Try pickling them. (William Woys Weaver provides a good recipe in his book "Heirloom Vegetable Gardening.") They are superb in stir-fries, holding their texture well, or in a succotash to give it some variety and add brassica nutrients to the normal duo of corn and bean. Radish pods lose their pungency when cooked, but retain a pleasant chewiness. The texture is rather like that of a garlic scape, another great but little-used part of a common vegetable. But that's another story.

Add pods to a crudité platter, or just surround a bowl of dip with them at a summer gathering. No one will know what they are, and you might want to think twice before saying, "Those are rattails." Make up something catchy and horticulturally meaningless like "hot beans." Or just keep them guessing. They might search your garden, but all they'll find are some mysterious bolted brassicas.

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