Elizabeth McCorquodale enthuses about one of the most underrated of garden vegetables - and one worthy of more of your time and attention.
Radishes are probably one of the most underrated of common vegetables, even to the extent that we tend not to consider them as vegetables at all and this is probably because they are so extraordinarily quick and easy to grow.
They shouldn’t, though, simply be taken at face value because, even without taking into account the more unusual varieties, the humble common-or-garden radish has far more to offer than just a bit of crunch on the side of a salad plate.
To start with radishes make great shoots and sprouts. The sprouted seeds - where you eat both the seed and the tiny shoots that appear after being soaked and rinsed in fresh water for a few days - are ready for eating in less than a week, straight out of the sprouting jar. Next consider the green leafy shoots of radish, grown like cress on a shallow layer of soil and which take only 10 days from sowing to produce the first cut of the fiery little leaves.
It takes only slightly longer to grow this cool weather crop outside in a bed of loose soil - some varieties mature in just over 3 weeks. Like all root crops, they prefer not to have to battle their way through a rocky or compacted soil and they will repay any pampering with a speedy crop of crisp and tender roots. Radishes grow quickly but they soon toughen up, so sow little and often, or sow several different varieties each with different maturing times so that your harvest is extended.
You could try sowing the small and delicate ‘Cherry Belle’, the golf-ball sized ‘Vienna’, the elongated roots of ‘China Rose’, and top it off ‘Mooli’ one of the varieties that grow into real whoppers that take much longer to mature. They can even be stored for winter use!
There are several wildly different radish species and varieties and most of these will never appear on supermarket shelves.
The most common of the exotics is the heritage daikon radish, with it’s long white root and mild flavour and the tougher, fiery hot black or Spanish radish which looses most of its heat when cooked. Although they are rarely seen in supermarkets they are very easy to grow, though they take considerably longer to mature than the smaller varieties.
The largest daikons can easily grow to 30 to 45 cm long, and are harvested in late summer or autumn from a spring sowing. There are dozens of varieties to choose from.
The versatility of this family doesn’t end there.
You can, of course, harvest the leaves of all radish varieties all through the season, if, that is, you can avoid the attentions of the tiny flea beetle. This pest is the cause of the small holes that so often mar the appearance of radish leaves. Flea beetles can be outwitted by the simple application of a layer of fine horticultural fleece laid loosely over the bed.
With this protection the leaves, which resemble mustard plants both in appearance and in flavour, will remain fit for harvesting. These leaves add a lovely heat to salads and are a delight added into dishes wherever you would add shredded kale or cabbage.
To make the most of your radish crop sow the seeds close together and thin the seedlings as they grow to use in salads and sandwiches, leaving the remaining plants to grow fat and plump. These speedy growers are an ideal candidate for succession planting – each time you pull up some roots, pop a few seeds in the vacant soil. You can grow radishes all year round, from winter windowsills to spring varieties of salad types to the long-season growers that last in the garden well into the colder months.
With all the different manifestations of this little vegetable there is one that really stands out as something different and at first glance it hardly appears to be a radish at all.
The rat-tail radish is grown not for its root (though you can eat it) or even its leaves, but for its seed pods. Like all the brassicas, the flowers of radishes mature into long chilli-shaped pods, and the rat-tailed radish pods are delicious- fiery hot, crisp and crunchy.
When sowing the rat tailed radish forget completely its crunchy fast growing relations and instead plant it as a long season crop about 18 inches apart in rich well cultivated soil.
Provide a framework to support the plant as it grows as it can reach upwards of three feet over the season. The pods should be harvested when they are about the thickness of a French bean, before they become fibrous, and then can be served in any dish where you would enjoy chillies or served up with a dip as a crudité.
The flavour is like a cross between mustard and horseradish and the appearance is very attractive, both in the garden as it is growing, and once harvested, on the plate. If you want to get an idea of their flavour, sow your common radishes as usual and harvest these as you need them, but leave a couple at the end of the row to fully mature and flower so you can try the crunchy seed pods to eat in stir-fries and salads.
The radish family not only come in all these wonderful shapes and sizes but also with very different levels of heat. French breakfast is mild and crispy while Icicle - predictably a long white skinned variety - is fiery hot when fresh. How hot a radish is not only depends on which variety you plant but on the prevailing weather conditions.
The heat increases as the temperature rises and conditions become drier, while cool, damp weather results in milder flavours. The delicious heat of radishes differs from that of chillies or pepper in that it is clean and easily quenched by a sip of water. Unfortunately this also means that the heat is rapidly mellowed by cooking.
To retain the bite try adding your radishes to the pan just before serving to ensure you retain both the crunch and the heat. They are delicious and crisp and a great substitute for water chestnuts in Asian dishes. They are a very versatile vegetable.
A real glut of radishes can even be pickled, just like cucumbers - simply soak your cleaned, trimmed radishes in brine overnight, then pack them into sterilised jars and fill the jars with a hot gingered and spiced pickling vinegar. Delicious!