Saturday, May 15, 2010

In praise of the daikon

I often read praise for the productivity of the greens of early Spring, especially kale. Eliot Coleman, among others, waxes poetic on how hardy and productive kale can be, growing even in the snow. Never mind that one can tire quickly of earnest stir-fries and nutrition-filled omelets! But what of the daikon radish? Pound for pound, it has far outpaced the greens in my garden. I planted the daikon radish seed on March 6th and the first seedlings popped up ten days later. Today -- after exactly two months of generally cold and wet weather -- I pulled up 3 radishes. After trimming, each weighed in at over 3 ounces. Pretty impressive, especially considering that my other Spring root vegetables -- beets and carrots -- are still fetal, boasting the barest wisp of a root.

While radishes are a staple across Asia and the subcontinent, they are low in food energy -- each of my radishes is probably under 20 calories. But what the daikon lacks in stored energy, it makes up for in Vitamin C. No scurvy for my family this Spring! According to A Cook's Guide to Asian Vegetables, daikon leaves are edible and quite rich in calcium and iron, but seldom used in Asian cooking. The guide suggests using the leaves in braises and stir-fries, similar to other bitter greens. My favorite culinary vegetable reference, the indispensable Vegetables From Amaranth to Zucchini, also testifies that radish greens "in good shape" are "worth saving and cooking as much for their flavor as for their nutrient value". Finally, let us not forget the daikon's other importance: Elizabeth Schneider writes that "no vegetable is as beloved by vegetable-carvers world-wide, particularly in China".

So how to cook my bounty? Usually, I make a quick daikon pickle to stuff into my banh mi sandwiches. I also have a jar of effervescent radish kimchi, hauled out of the fridge on Korean dinner nights. But I need some new ideas: Amaranth to Zucchini suggests a radish-ginger stir-fry. My dearest friends simmer slices of daikon in their rich Taiwanese braises. Both recipes on are on the docket in the coming week. Food journalists are also beginning to feature more radishes. (As an aside, while I appreciate that cooking magazines are increasingly featuring seasonal ingredients, I find their timing frustrating. In January, I was deluged with chive and radish recipes. Now, just as the last frost date arrives, I am up to my neck in late summer recipes for tomatoes and zucchini. I suspect this mostly has to do with the advanced production schedule, though perhaps these food writers are based in warmer climes, like California. Either way, the seasonal time-warp requires that the organized cook clip and save the interesting recipes, anticipating the time of plenty). One of the few Spring recipes that made it into my file over the winter featured roasted radishes, courtesy of Saveur. I wouldn't have even remembered that I clipped it except that the New York Times ran a similar recipe last week, excavating the winter memory from the rubble of my Spring-gardening mind.

I am happy to report that this recipe is a keeper! The texture and flavor are genuinely transformed. Gone is the crisp, peppery bite of the raw vegetable. The slow-roasting yields a soft, sweet product, reminiscent of a turnip. I roasted daikon and French breakfast radishes. The daikon stood up better to the treatment: the French radishes, though tasty, were a bit watery.

I also stir-fried the greens. Normally I throw in the stems, but the daikon stems have uncomfortably prickly surfaces, so I just chopped up the leaves themselves. They were so-so, a bit chewy, with no flavor to recommend them as superior to other hardy greens. If I were a hungry pioneer, the radish leaves would happily find their way into the soup pot. As a dilettante urban gardener, I'll stick to my spinach and mizuna, and invest the nutrient wealth of the radish leaves into my worm bins.

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