Delicately crisp and lightly hot, spring radishes are a tease of what a radish can be. They are charming in their way, relevant to other equally understated flavors and textures of their season. But radishes are at their most pronounced, and their most versatile, in fall and winter. The return chill of autumn brings variety: pastel-painted German and Chinese heirlooms and juicy, miniature daikons in fade-out lime green. They differ so greatly in character from spring radishes as to seem another vegetable entirely. They eschew subtlety with dense, crisp flesh, a faintly nutty sweetness and an untamed heat that, depending on the variety and growing conditions, can vary from mildly spicy to wildly pungent.
Yet despite their assertiveness (or perhaps thanks to it), winter radishes, too, revel in minimalism. A plate of the Misato Rose radish, sliced thin, drizzled with a buttery olive oil and scattered with flaky sea salt, doesn’t want for more. Its interior color, vivid in kaleidoscopic fuchsia, precludes any need to fuss over presentation. And there are few livelier (and simpler) midwinter additions to a tangle of vinaigrette-dressed chicories or a lentil salad than wedges of whatever winter radish you happen to have on hand.
At the same time, winter radishes can stand up to bold treatments, such as braising, roasting, sauteing and fermenting, that spring radishes are less obliged to tolerate. Of the latter, British food journalist Nigel Slater, writing in “Tender” (Ten Speed Press, 2011), admonishes readers to “ignore any suggestions of cooking them. The writer is clearly deluded.” Exposed to heat, a winter radish mellows; its firm interior yields to tender and meaty. It’s the sort of vegetable you want in winter, whose usual committee of root crops, earthy and modest, speak in mild-mannered tones. They comfort the palate but don’t always inspire, although undoubtedly there are celery root and Jerusalem artichoke enthusiasts who would disagree. Winter radishes are flashy by comparison, a protest against cold-weather culinary monotony; if you strive to keep your kitchen seasonal, they are indispensable.
Winter radishes might be looked upon quizzically these days and are not so easy to come by, but that wasn’t always so. In the early 19th century, radishes were a staple in the winter garden, a crop that provided nourishment and variety when little else could be coaxed from the soil. Home gardeners were encouraged to plant them for their ease of maintenance and longevity. In a root cellar or cold storage, they keep for four to six months, with nearly indiscernible compromise in flavor or texture.
But widespread winter gardening carried on only until industrialization and its associated conveniences rendered it unnecessary. “When food became available and cheap, that was one of the things that fell by the wayside,” says Ira Wallace, a staff member at Southern Exposure Seed Exchange in Mineral, Va., and an organizer of the Heritage Harvest Festival at Monticello.