Many gardeners, especially those with children, like to plant a row or two of radishes. They are always among the earliest seeds to germinate, an ingratiating habit that makes them ideal for the impatient early-season gardeners of all ages. Although they are commonly eaten raw, radishes are also a versatile cooked vegetable.
Radishes are part of the larger Brassica family, along with turnips, rutabagas, kohlrabi, cabbage, and kale. Radish leaves, like those of their siblings, can be eaten as cooked greens when they are available. The root itself is similar in shape and flavor to a turnip, though radishes are smaller and have a more peppery character. Radishes have a very short growing season and are among the earliest crops in spring, which endears them to those who love fresh vegetables.
Radishes are almost invariably eaten raw in America, but they respond well to cooking. Like turnips, the peppery flavor of the radish is mellowed by cooking, leaving it sweet and tender. Most home gardens produce a surplus of radishes once they begin to hit maturity, and only so many will fit in one bowl of salad. Cooked radishes make an excellent complement to other early vegetables, such as new potatoes, chard, baby carrots, and sweet young peas. When cooked, their red skin softens to a pastel pink, which makes an attractive contrast with the other vegetables.
Radishes lend themselves to a variety of cooking methods. They can be steamed or simmered with other new vegetables, creating a medley of delicate flavors that need only the lightest sprinkle of seasoning mix or a small pat of butter. Like the other root vegetables in their family, radishes can also be roasted to bring out their natural sweetness. They can be simmered and pureed for an unusual cream soup, or added to any brothy soup as a colorful choice of vegetable. Radishes also work well in stir-fry, either sliced or julienned, and optionally tossed with creamy ranch dressing that lets the radish flavor sing through.
The familiar little red globe radishes are not the only ones you can cook with. Daikon, the large white Asian radish, is a common ingredient in Japanese and Southeast Asian foods. The black, peppery Spanish winter radish is very pungent, and is usually roasted or braised and mashed as a side dish. The most interesting of all exotic radishes may be the unfortunately named "rat-tail" radish, which is cultivated for its seed pods. These resemble peas, but have a sweetly peppery radish flavor. They are normally steamed or stir-fried.