A radish can send mixed messages. Many varieties resemble something designed by Willy Wonka, but taste like mustard gas. Eating one can feel like leaning in for a kiss and getting slapped. I’m not saying this is a bad thing, at least when it comes to eating a radish. The key is to harness that slap, and get as much mileage out of it as you can.
Too often, radishes are sliced into salads, which doesn't offer enough contrast to let them shine. The company of other raw plant parts brings out unflattering sides of a radish, and likewise, it can make the entire salad too harsh.
But it doesn't take much to let a radish shine. Just a little fresh baguette, some salt and a lot of butter, to be exact. For hundreds of years prior to the advent of avocado toast, French chefs have laid thin slices of salted radish upon heavily buttered bread for a simple meal that is anything but plain.
The watery, pickle-like crunch of a radish adds texture to the yeasty, crusty medium. Disarmed by salt and harnessed by butter, the root's pungency is put to work, without the slightest foul whiff to be sniffed.
I make radish toast with sourdough, which harmonizes with the cocktail of strong flavor in a spicy radish. The one acceptable deviation is to add thin slices of onion. The key is to not skimp on the butter, and don't forget the salt.
Indeed, salt alone makes a big difference with a radish, countering its feisty flavor with an equal but opposing force. A pinch of salt pulls droplets of spiked water from the white faces of a cut radish. The slices turn translucent, and deliver a brief, salty, wasabi-like hit. A simple plate of salted radish is a great palate cleanser between courses.
Another way to tame a radish is with heat, in both temperature and spicy senses of that word. Radishes get mellow with cooking, their pungency replaced with sweetness. Spicy heat, meanwhile, fights fire with fire, building a flaming bridge between a radish and the rest of a meal.
In the popular Himalayan dish phagshapa, cooks employ an all-of-the-above strategy to radish cookery: cooking them with hot peppers and a bacon-like pork product, with ginger and onion rounding out this parley of pungency. Phagshapa was one of my favorite dishes during the brief time I spent in Bhutan. But this is not a dish for the faint of heart, mouth or belly. If I gave you the recipe I would feel responsible for your safety, thanks to sadomasochistic levels of hot pepper and ginger in a properly prepared rendition.
But don't blame the radish for that drama. It is sweet and mellow by serving time, thanks to the cooking. Next to the chile and ginger, the radish is a refuge from the more intense flavors, while contributing a subtle layer of umami. Whatever a radish is cooked in or on, be it pizza, stew, or frittata, it has a way of quietly making food taste better without being obnoxious — like a spicy MSG of the plant world.
Radish frittata is my New World answer to phagshapa, with chopped bacon taking the place of boiled pork. And in a nod to France, the frittata is finished with butter.
The dish includes radish leaves, because they are tender and tasty, contain more nutrients than the roots, and because there really isn’t a single reason not to. Some radish varieties are grown specifically for their leaves, though any radish leaf is worth eating — but not in salad, as some radish leaves can be fuzzy if eaten raw.
In the radish frittata, the leaves add to the matrix, and are a welcome splash of green. My radish frittata may not measure up to a French radish sandwich or Bhutanese phagshapa in terms of pure elegance or cultural importance, but it's an American-style way to eat radish that borrows from the best, and tastes good with coffee any time of day.
Egg in a radish frittata nest
Quantities listed are for a solo portion: one egg and a single slice of bacon. Adjust accordingly, depending on the hunger and size of the breakfast party.
1 piece of bacon, sliced crosswise into pieces of less than half-inch
1 personal-sized potato, peeled or not
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 pinch salt
2 pinches pepper
2 radishes: roots trimmed and sliced, leaves rinsed and separated
1 clove garlic, minced
An appropriate amount of jalapeno or other hot pepper, chopped or crushed
1 teaspoon butter
1 egg, beaten or sunny side up
Add the chopped bacon and grated potato to a heavy pan and cook on medium heat. Unless the bacon is super -atty, add the olive oil. Stir at a medium pace, allowing crust to form and brown but not burn on the bottom before scraping it off the pan. Cook for about 10 minutes, until it looks like a splintered bird nest.
Beat the egg, if going the beaten route, with a tablespoon of milk, cream or water.
Push the potato matrix to the side of the pan, and add the butter, garlic and radish parts. When the radishes are wilted and soft and you can smell the garlic, about two minutes, stir everything together and spread it out. Make a little dimple in the middle of the pile, forming a nest-like cup to catch the egg.
Add the egg to the nest, and allow it to cook, unstirred, for about 2 minutes, uncovered. If the egg is sunny side up, add a teaspoon of water to the side of the pan and put a lid on to steam the top. If using beaten egg, give it a few stirs to break it up and turn it over, so all the egg cooks. Serve hot.