Radishes—a spring delight—are a feast to the eyes and are often the first local vegetable of the season.
I always admire the early displays at the farmers market and at the Co-op, the colorful array of radishes especially welcome after the grays and browns of the winter months.
The word “radish” is derived from the Latin radix, which means root. As I mentioned, they are one of the first root vegetables available in early spring. In fact the Greek name for the radish genus, Raphanus, means “quickly appearing,” which it certainly does, a welcome sprout in the spring garden!
Radishes are a member of the Brassica family, also known as the cabbage or mustard family. It is reported that radishes were native to China and other parts of Asia, and then they became domesticated in the Mediterranean. Initially Egypt and Greece were huge admirers of this unique vegetable. In ancient Greece they were in such high regard that gold replicas of radishes were dedicated to Apollo in the temple at Delphi. Drawings of radishes were found on Egyptian pyramids around 2000 B.C., where they were also highly valued. In Egypt radishes were grown for radish seed oil, which was commonly used before olive oil was available. Radishes spread to European countries and Japan where they became very popular and beloved. Radishes came to America in the early 1600s.
Radishes come in a multitude of colors (pink, white, black, yellow, red, and purple). One variety, called watermelon, is quite drab and green on the outside but once it is cut open, your eyes are in for a treat, since it is white closest to the outside but then there are circular striations of beautiful pink and magenta—thus the resemblance to Mother Nature’s work of art, the watermelon! Japan is known for its daikon radish, which is commonly grown here now. It is recognized as a winter radish and can be stored for extended periods of time. Radishes come in different shapes and sizes, the most common being round, but you often find them elongated or in icicle formations. Their tastes vary as well, from mild to very pungent. Radishes are known for their robust flavor, which is due to the presence of mustard oil and the plant compounds called glucosinolates (also found in horseradish and wasabi).
Radishes are some of the most hydrating vegetables, consisting of a whopping 95% water. They contain a large amount of vitamin C and provide us with potassium, dietary fiber, and folic acid, too. Radish greens can be eaten and they are rich sources of vitamins A and C, as well as B-vitamins. Radishes have been shown to benefit our bodies medicinally by improving digestion. The plant compounds they all contain, glucosinolates, have been shown to be involved in fighting cancer, and they contain another powerful compound, anthocyanin, which are responsible for radishes’ brilliant colors. Research has shown that they may assist in decreasing inflammation and have properties to prevent cancer and heart disease.
Look for radishes that are firm, have no cracks, and provide bright color. Store them in the refrigerator, and remove the greens unless you plan to use them right away. Wash them well, and if there are blemishes, you can peel them. I often peel daikon since there can be a lot of dirt in the nooks and crannies. Slice, chop, or grate radishes into a salad. If they have become limp, freshen them up by soaking them in ice cold water for about an hour.
Don’t delay—go out and buy or plant some fresh radishes! Add a splash of color to your salads and spice up the flavor. Feel free to make a salad of just radishes, or mix them with greens. Add them to any of your favorite salads (potato or egg) for a new flavor, or slice them to add to a sandwich. I just discovered roasted radishes, which have a totally different flavor. Roasting them tones down their spiciness and the oil and vinegar dressing adds zing!
By Chris Ellis, Staff Nutritionist