Radishes awakened my interest in food.

I was 5 years old and feverish with the promise that spring would soon arrive.

I sat down with a seed catalog retrieved from the trash and started circling plants with a marker, just as I did with the toy catalogs in December. The radish page was my favorite, vibrant with colors and shapes. Radishes delivered a snap of heat and spice unfamiliar at our family table and far outside the Holy Midwestern Trinity of salt, pepper and ketchup.

Page after page, I circled radishes and admired them: bright red orbs, pink ovals with white hats and the long white hairy spears called “horse.” Our neighbor Rueben grew horseradish in his garden. I knew this because whenever I visited him for lunch, he padded our bologna sandwiches with a liberal slap of his homemade horseradish sauce.

I was so appreciative that Rueben sent me home with my own stash of white heat. I carefully labeled the Mason jar with my name and hid it in the back of the refrigerator, not wanting to share this precious gift with greedy siblings. (I needn’t have worried, as none of my older sisters cared for the heat that I found so invigorating.) My life in food began the afternoon I took a first bite of bologna and horseradish.

Sometime that spring, the thaw finally came and a package arrived for me in the mail. Inside was a small seed packet with a picture of a shiny red radish. I shook the sealed envelope and the seeds rattled an exciting percussion.

My mother brought me outside to the small dirt patch on the side of our house. Her gardens took up much of the backyard, but this little plot was to be mine. She showed me how to space the radishes and push the seeds into the soil.

I worked all morning in the damp chill. Several times a day, for weeks, I inspected my radish plot and waited. And waited. There is a lot to be said for the patience that gardening instills.

When green sprigs appeared in the soil, I rushed to ask my mother if it was time to harvest, but the agonizing wait continued. When it was finally time to dig into the earth, I piled the entire crop into my sister’s Radio Flyer red wagon and wheeled it to the front sidewalk. I propped up a cardboard sign advertising “Radishes 1¢,” and our town’s first farmers market opened for business.

Other kids ran their own lemonade stands. My heart was in radishes.

But despite my enthusiasm, I didn’t have a single sale. In the end my mother bought the entire lot. This worked out well for me. I sat on the front stoop dipping the peppery red and white orbs into a dish of salt and felt smug from my good luck.

Radishes are irresistible. They clear the senses and cleanse the palate. They brighten savory meats and pungent cheeses while balancing earthy vegetables and neutral breads.

The radish was my gateway ingredient to experimentation without fear.

Radish Rumaki

Serves 4.

Note: Radishes are a nice addition to roasted root vegetables. Roasting them mellows their heat and softens their texture. When they are freshly plucked from the earth, their greens are spicy and pungent when eaten raw. Older greens can be added to stir fries, just as you would use spinach or kale. Sambel oelek is available in the Asian section of many supermarkets. From Patrice Johnson.

• 16 red radishes

• 8 to 12 slices center-cut bacon, halved

• 16 to 24 toothpicks, soaked in water 30 minutes

• 1/3 c. ketchup

• 1/3 c. maple syrup

• 1 tbsp. soy sauce

 1 tbsp. sambel oelek (Thai chili paste) or other hot sauce (see Note)

• Nonstick cooking spray

Directions

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Halve large radishes; keep medium-size (1/2-inch diameter) radishes whole. Wrap each radish with half slice of bacon and secure bacon with toothpick.

Place wire rack inside of parchment-lined rimmed baking sheet. Spray rack with nonstick spray and place radishes 1 inch apart on rack. Bake for 30 minutes, flipping radishes after the first 15 minutes.

While radishes bake, in a small pan whisk together ketchup, maple syrup, soy sauce and sambel oelek. Simmer 5 minutes, stirring occasionally, and set aside.

Brush radishes liberally with sauce and return to oven. Cook additional 10 to 15 minutes or until bacon is crisp and radishes are sticky. Cool 5 minutes and serve with additional sauce.

Nutrition information per serving:

Calories 170 Fat 6 g Sodium 790 mg

Carbohydrates 25 g Saturated fat 2 g Total sugars 21 g

Protein 6 g Cholesterol 16 mg Dietary fiber 0 g

Exchanges per serving: 1 ½ carbs, 1 high-fat protein.

Radish-Fennel Root Gratin

Serves 9.

Note: If you are using radishes with fresh unblemished tops, chop up the green tops and add them to the initial sauté. Panko breadcrumbs are bigger and lighter than the traditional breadcrumb, which could be substituted. From Patrice Johnson.

• 1 tbsp. unsalted butter, plus more for greasing baking dish

• 1 large shallot, sliced very thin

• 3 garlic cloves, grated

• 1 large (or 2 small) fennel bulbs, sliced very thin (1/8 to 1/4 in.)

• 2 c. red, French Breakfast or watermelon radishes, halved

• 1/2 tsp. salt

• 1/2 tsp. pepper

• 1/4 tsp. nutmeg

• Zest from 1 orange

• 1/4 c. dry white wine

• 1/2 c. shredded Gruyère cheese, divided

• 1 c. half-and-half

For the topping:

• 2 tbsp. unsalted butter, melted

• 1/2 c. panko breadcrumbs (see Note)

• 1/2 c. shredded Gruyère

• 2 tbsp. Italian parsley, chopped

• 1/4 tsp. nutmeg

Directions

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Generously butter bottom and sides of 8- by 8-inch baking dish (a 2-quart ceramic baking dish will also work).

In large sauté pan melt 1 tablespoon butter; add shallot and garlic and sauté over medium-high until shallots are translucent; about 3 minutes. Add fennel, radishes, salt, pepper, nutmeg and orange zest, and continue cooking until fennel is tender; about 10 minutes, stirring frequently. Add wine and reduce until wine is almost completely absorbed; about 5 minutes.

Layer half of the fennel-radish mixture into bottom of prepared baking dish. Cover with ¼ cup Gruyère. Top with remaining fennel-radish mixture and another ¼ cup Gruyère. Pour half-and-half over casserole, cover entire dish with foil and bake for 45 minutes.

While gratin bakes, prepare topping: Combine 2 tablespoons melted butter, breadcrumbs, ½ cup Gruyère, parsley and nutmeg so that mixture is uniformly mixed.

Remove foil from gratin and evenly spread breadcrumb mixture over the vegetables. Return uncovered casserole to oven, and bake additional 15 minutes or until breadcrumb mixture is golden and crisp. Serve hot.

Nutrition information per serving:

Calories 150 Fat 11 g Sodium 260 mg

Carbohydrates 9 g Saturated fat 7 g Total sugars 4 g

Protein 6 g Cholesterol 35 mg Dietary fiber 2 g

Exchanges per serving: 1 vegetable, ½ high-fat protein, 1 ½ fat.

Japanese-Style Potato Salad

Serves 4 to 6.

Note: To make softboiled egg, place egg(s) in bottom of heavy pot and cover with cold water so that 1-inch of water is over the tops of the egg. Over high heat bring water to boil. Immediately cover the pot and remove from heat. Allow residual heat of the water to continue cooking the egg for 6 to 8 minutes, then submerge egg in ice water and cool completely before peeling. From Patrice Johnson.

 2 large russet potatoes, about 1 1/4 to 1 1/2 lb., peeled and quartered

• Salt

• 1/4 c. buttermilk

 2 small Persian cucumbers (or 1 English cucumber, seeded), sliced very thin

• 1 tsp. sugar

 1/2 c. diced radish (use red, watermelon, or Black Spanish)

 1 crisp and tart apple (such as Honeycrisp, SweeTango, Granny Smith), peeled, cored and diced

• 1/4 c. red onion, diced

 1 soft-boiled egg, diced (see Note)

• 3 green onions, sliced thin

 6 tbsp. mayonnaise

• 1 tbsp. rice wine vinegar

• 1 tbsp. soy sauce

 3 tsp. horseradish (or 1 tsp. wasabi)

• 1 tsp. sugar

• 1 tsp. pepper

Directions

In a large saucepan, cover potatoes with water and add 1 tablespoon salt. Bring to boil over high heat and simmer until potatoes are quite tender, about 15 minutes. Drain and place in mixing bowl. Add buttermilk and mash to lumpy texture. Set aside to cool at room temperature for 30 minutes.

Toss cucumbers in 1 teaspoon sugar and ½ teaspoon salt, and set aside for 10 minutes. Drain and squeeze liquid from cucumbers.

In very large mixing bowl, combine cucumbers, radishes, apple, onion, egg, mayo, vinegar, soy sauce, horseradish, 1 teaspoon sugar and pepper. Fold into cooled potatoes and refrigerate for up to 24 hours.

Nutrition information per each of 6 servings:

Calories 230 Fat 12 g Sodium 530 mg

Carbohydrates 30 g Saturated fat 2 g Total sugars 7 g

Protein 4 g Cholesterol 40 mg Dietary fiber 4 g

Exchanges per serving: 1 starch, 1 carbs, 2 ½ fat.

Thai-Style Salad With Daikon Noodles

Serves 8.

Note: You will have more vinaigrette than you will need for a single salad. Chill unused vinaigrette for up to 1 week (it’s also great in coleslaw). Both sambel oelek and fish sauce can be found in the Asian section at supermarkets. From Patrice Johnson.

For the vinaigrette:

 Juice of 1 lime (about 3 to 4 tbsp.)

• 3 tbsp. rice vinegar

 2 tbsp. peanuts, crushed plus more for garnish (or 1 tbsp. peanut butter)

• 1 tbsp. soy sauce

 1 tbsp. sambel oelek, or your favorite hot sauce (see Note)

• 3 tsp. honey

• 2 tsp. grated fresh ginger

• 2 tsp. sesame oil

• 1 garlic clove, grated

• 1/4 tsp. fish sauce (see Note)

• 1/3 to 1/2 c. vegetable oil

For the salad:

 2 c. daikon radish, use spiralizer or vegetable peeler to shave into thin strips

• 2 c. mixed greens

• 2 c. bok choy, chopped

• 1 c. carrots, sliced thin

• 1. c. red pepper, sliced thin

• 1 c. mango, sliced thin

• 1 c. cucumber, sliced thin

• 1/4 c. red onion, sliced thin

 1 jalapeño, deveined and seeded, sliced thin

 1/2 c. mixed fresh herbs (such as cilantro, green onion, Thai basil, mint)

Directions

For the vinaigrette: Whisk together the lime juice, rice vinegar, 2 tablespoons peanuts, soy sauce, sambel oelek, honey, ginger, sesame oil, garlic, fish sauce and vegetable oil, until emulsified.

For the salad: Combine daikon radish, mixed greens, bok choy, carrots, red pepper, mango, cucumber, red onion, jalapeño and most of herbs. Toss with ¾ cup vinaigrette. Garnish with remaining herbs and additional peanuts.

Nutrition information per serving:

Calories 120 Fat 8 g Sodium 150 mg

Carbohydrates 12 g Saturated fat 1 g Total sugars 8 g

Protein 2 g Cholesterol 0 mg Dietary fiber 3 g

Exchanges per serving: 1 vegetable, ½ carbs, 1 ½ fat.

 

Patrice Johnson is a freelance writer from Roseville and a Nordic food cooking instructor.