This week's look at what's new, bountiful or mysterious in the produce aisles:
We admit it: Radishes aren't everybody's natural passion. And truth to tell, the hothouse ones seen year-round aren't particularly exciting. But in season -- and several varieties are in season right now -- these root vegetables with an ancient origin have a lively flavor, a fine, firm texture and a bright complexion.
Used in cooking from the Orient to the Mediterranean, radishes have been around so long, there's been speculation they were used by the Egyptians to feed their slaves. The Chinese are thought to have cultivated radishes even earlier. The ancient Greeks grew radishes too, though the familiar round ones are thought to have been developed in the 18th century. Today, many varieties of radishes are grown, some shaped like globes, others like icicles -- and they come in a range of sizes from tiny to substantial. Colors vary from white to red to red-and-white to pink to mauve to almost black.
One of the first vegetables to come to maturity in spring, radishes are high in potassium, extremely low in fat and calories, and an unexpected source of Vitamin C.
HOW TO SELECT: The freshly bunched red radishes of late spring and summer should be bright and firm. Bypass radishes with cracks or a spongy feel. Radish tops should be dark green -- yellowing leaves are an indication of age. Varieties such as French breakfast radishes, which are long and cylindrical with oval ends, may be available now.
HOW TO STORE: Radishes should be eaten relatively soon after purchase or they will become bitter. They can be stored for several days in the refrigerator wrapped loosely in plastic with their tops removed. (The tops, which can be used in a stir-fry or salad if they are young, should be stored separately.)
HOW TO PREPARE: Radishes are ordinarily eaten raw after they are washed, cleaned with a stiff vegetable brush and drained. They are usually not peeled, but taste milder if they have been. The leaves can be either sliced off completely or pared down to a decorative tuft. The radishes can be eaten whole, dipped into salt, or sliced, chopped or grated.
Radishes can also be roasted, sliced and served with olive oil, salt and pepper; or treated like turnips (to which they are related). They can be pickled.
The French serve themwith bread, butter and salt. With their sharp, peppery taste, radishes are delicious as a contrast to creamy cheeses or white beans. Their knobby shapes may have led to the long-standing impulse to carve them into beautiful flowers.
If you'd rather have an hors d'oeuvre than a hearty sandwich, take the same ingredients -- hold the lettuce -- and make crostini instead.
From "A Year in a Vegetarian Kitchen," by Jack Bishop (Houghton Mifflin, 2004):
About 6 ounces St. Andre cheese or other soft cheese such as Boursault, Brillat-Savarin or goat cheese, at room temperature (don't bother removing the rind unless you really don't like it)
8 medium radishes, scrubbed, trimmed and thinly sliced
Tender, mild lettuce leaves, such as Boston, Bibb or leaf lettuce
With a serrated knife in one hand and the other hand on top of the baguette, split the loaf in half lengthwise to separate the top from the bottom. Smear the cheese evenly over the bottom of the baguette. Arrange the radishes over the cheese, pressing them lightly into the cheese to secure them. If desired, sprinkle with salt. Top with the lettuce leaves, folding and overlapping them as necessary to tuck them within the baguette. Place the top of the baguette on the lettuce and press lightly. Cut the sandwich into 4 pieces and serve.
Per serving: 431 calories, 18 gm protein, 60 gm carbohydrates, 12 gm fat, 20 mg cholesterol, 7 gm saturated fat, 852 mg sodium, 4 gm dietary fiber
-- Judith Weinraub