Stories / Guides and Tips

A Rave for Radishes

James Beard

June 05, 2018


Photo: bhofack2 / iStock / Getty Images Plus 

In his iconic tome, Beard on Food, which was first published in 1974, our namesake wrote prolific prose on a vast landscape of culinary topics, from a lesson in chicken anatomy to a sandwich manifesto to the pleasures of radishes, which we share with you today. Humorous, erudite, and timeless, this collection of essays remains an indispensable resource for the home cook. Stay tuned for more! 

Beard on Food: A Rave for Radishes

From my earliest years I have adored the crispness, colorfulness, and spicy tang of radishes. I can recall my first feeble efforts at gardening, when I planted little rows of radishes and was so thrilled when they came up, and even more thrilled when it was time to pull them and eat them fresh from the ground. Very few things in life have ever tasted better to me.

Then I remember that on my first trip to France I was introduced to that perfect combination of good bread, sweet butter, and the firm, brilliantly red radishes the French always include on their hors d’oeuvre list in the spring, when the radishes are at their finest. I found the contrast of flavors and textures very interesting and satisfying to the taste buds. In England one sometimes finds radishes on the breakfast plate with toast and butter, and that’s extremely good, too. I often serve a plate of early spring radishes with their leafy bright green tops still on (I like to eat the tops if they are fresh and tender—there’s a lovely bite to them), accompanied by homemade bread and butter as a first course.

As my palate and I grew more sophisticated, I went to a cocktail party where I encountered a delicious hors d’oeuvre of an anchovy fillet wrapped around a red radish, which I thought was something really extra special.

Although we are most familiar with the tiny red globe radishes or the more elongated one we buy in the markets, radishes do vary considerably in color, shape, and size, and in flavor from mild to peppery hot. The long white icicle radishes, less strongly flavored, are wonderful eaten freshly pulled and crisp, with a sprinkling of salt. Then there are the huge black radishes which, when peeled, grated, and mixed with chicken or goose fat, make a delectable spread for bread. The Japanese use an enormous white radish called daikon which grows 2 to 3 feet long and has a sweet and tangy flavor unlike any other. These radishes are usually served as a garnish, thinly sliced in soups, or grated and served in a tiny bowl to be eaten with or stirred into the dipping sauce for sashimi, those tender little slivers of raw fish; or tempura, batter-dipped, deep-fried vegetables and fish.

Radishes have been cultivated for thousands of years in the Far East, and they are one of the most flavorful of vegetables. As a salad material, their pungent, peppery taste gives piquancy to otherwise dull far—and it’s always nice to know that 3 1/2 ounces of radishes are only about 17 calories.

While radishes are a familiar ingredient in a mixed green salad, recently I found an exciting new way to use them when I attended some classes in Middle Eastern cooking given on the West Coast by my great friend and co-worker, Philip Brown. He made a salad with oranges, I believe Moroccan in origin, that I have since adapted and served to many people. It’s very good with lamb, and sensational with a curry or other dishes that have a hot seasoning or are rather rich in butter or oil. 

Nothing could be simpler and more beautiful to look at than his Radish and Orange Salad. Peel 4 good-sized navel oranges, and either section them or slice them very thinly, being sure to remove all the bitter white pith. Arrange these on a bed of washed and dried salad greens—I prefer the crisp leaves of romaine or iceberg lettuce. Now wash, trim, and shred 1 bunch of red radishes. I use a Mouli shredder, a little gadget with a handle that cuts vegetables into lovely, long shreds, but you could use the shredding side of a hand grater. Then kind of drape the radish shreds around the fruit, so you get a glorious color contrast of deep orange, bright green, rosy red, and snow white. Or you can make a wreath of radish shreds around the oranges, or pile them in a mound in the center—here’s where you can give your artistic instincts free rein.

Although the original dressing for this salad is made with lemon juice, sugar, and salt, I like to use a vinaigrette, made with 8 tablespoons olive oil to 1 tablespoon lemon juice, 1 teaspoon salt, 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, and 1 to 2 tablespoons orange juice. Taste the dressing before adding it to the salad and tossing it—you may need more lemon juice, or lime juice, which is excellent with it. You’ll find this vinaigrette has a quite different flavor that enhances the mixture of fruit and vegetables. Sometimes I vary the salad by alternating sections of orange and grapefruit, or orange and grapefruit sections and avocado slices, which combine with the crisp piquancy of the radish in a most subtle way.

Read more essays from Beard on Food.