Monday, January 10, 2011

Vote for radishes!

April radishes from a back-porch pot

You have a choice: eggplant, chard or radishes. Which should you grow?

This is of course an entirely spurious choice. You can grow all three if you have the space and the conditions. But you can only vote for one in the One Seed Chicago election.

One Seed Chicago is an attempt to get Chicagoans interested in growing vegetables by getting them all to grow the same vegetable each year. It drums up support by appealing to this city's sports-crazed town's favorite sport -- politics.

One Seed Chicago is a partnership between GreenNet, Openlands, the Garfield Park Conservatory Alliance and the University of Illinois Extension. All of these are highly regarded organizations that labor under considerable burdens when it comes to Chicago politics: Being squeaky clean and utterly earnest, they are not in a position to reward political loyalty by giving sweetheart contracts for trucking to mob-connected firms; hiring guys for city inspector jobs who turn out votes and then keeping them on the payroll for a year after they are convicted of taking bribes; or trading pension fund management contracts for huge political contributions.

No, all One Seed Chicago can do is implore you to grow and eat vegetables in the city. But they can make it a little more interesting by giving you something to argue and vote about. So, what do you think: Chard, radishes or eggplant?

I hereby endorse and throw the full support of my vast political organization behind radishes. I am confident that radishes will serve the needs of all the people of Chicago.

It was a tough choice, especially since nobody offered to trade me an appointment to the U.S. Senate or meet me for corned beef at Manny's to slip me cash in a plain brown envelope. Yes, I was put up to this by Mr. Brown Thumb, who runs the One Seed Chicago blog. But the only thing I get for voting, like all voters, is a packet of the winning seeds from One Seed Chicago. If eggplant wins, I'm in trouble.

I like eggplant (especially the smaller varieties, sliced thin, brushed with olive oil, grilled and serve with homegrown tomatoes, fresh mozzarella, fresh basil and a balsamic vinaigrette). But I don't have space to grow eggplant.

I like chard (especially quickly stir-fried in a wok with garlic and served with a drizzle of lemon juice, or chopped and stirred into chicken soup just before serving). I sometimes grow chard in containers on my back porch, but only to baby greens size, at which point I eat it. When young, no more than 3 inches long, the leaves are lovely cooked very briefly and are even tender enough to be tossed raw into in green salads.

But I always grow radishes. I have been growing radishes since I was knee-high. They have earned my loyalty. And if they're good enough for me, they're good enough for everybody.

What are radishes' chances? Hard to say. They have the lowest ballot position, which in Chicago politics is not as good at the top of the ballot but better than the middle. Will the charisma of eggplant be enough to overcome its position lost in the middle of the ballot? We need an opinion poll. Oh, yeah, this is an opinion poll.

I first grew radishes in kindergarten, or maybe even nursery school -- at least several years before I was considered old enough to pass out campaign literature to strangers. The reason was simple: Radishes grow fast. If you want to introduce a kid with an undeveloped attention span to gardening, radishes are the ticket. The seeds can be grown directly in the ground, or in a container, early in the spring when the soil is still cool -- even in late March in most Chicago springs -- and will grow to edible size in a month (or less for some varieties).

And a kid will eat radishes if that kid grew them. I guarantee. Especially if they are young, tender, not-too-big, just slightly peppery radishes, totally unlike those aged, woody, harsh-tasting things that are found, cut into dried-out rose shapes, as garnishes on banquet tables.

In my childhood, Midwestern dinner tables often featured a "relish tray" that consisted, invariably, of carrot sticks, celery sticks and radishes. (Sometimes my mother would indulge me by letting me cut them into roses.) I loved to pop a crunchy, zesty radish in my mouth and crunch it up whole. We also sliced radishes into almost every green salad. We had good radishes because we grew them in the back yard.

As an adult, I have become more sophisticated about radishes. I now know that you can eat the greens, although, like all greens, they are best when young. They pack a peppery punch and are good added in small quantities to to give a kick to blander greens such as kale, collards or spinach. The peppery flavor of radish greens is similar to that of mustard greens, which should be a hint that this native of Europe and Asia is related to the mustard plant.

I often sow a packet of radish seeds thickly in a container as my first crop of the season. I thin them at microgreen size, when the leaves are no more than a half-inch long. Those little leaves add a definite zing to a green salad.

Until I was old enough to read a French cookbook I never suspected you could cook radishes. But why not? Now I often saute them, whole or sliced, in butter until barely brown. They lose their bright red color but gain a mellow sweetness without losing entirely their peppery zest. I also toss them whole in stews or post roasts or scatter them like carrots and other root vegetables around a roasting chicken.

They also deserve a place in a pan of simple roasted vegetables -- onions, chunks of peppers, turnips, carrot chunks and radishes, tossed with olive oil, salt and pepper and roasted for 45 minutes in a medium oven.

Last night I improvised a nifty little radish salad (with storebought radishes, alas). I grated 6 or 8 good-sized radishes on a box grater (you could probably do this in a food processor). I thinly sliced 2 scallions and made a dressing of a couple of big spoonfuls of Middle Eastern yogurt, some salt and pepper and a squirt of lime juice. It was fresh and light and lovely.

The radishes I grew up with were probably 'Early Scarlet Globe' -- round, red and fast (as little as 23 days to maturity). There weren't many varieties of vegetable seed available back then. Nowadays we are all overwhelmed with choice in garden centers and especially seed catalogs.

There are white radishes, purple radishes, every shade of pink. There are long, almost carrot-shaped French radishes. There are mild radishes and radishes that will blow the top of your head off. There are Asian radishes and horseradish (which need a longer growing season and a deeper bed). There are larger winter radishes, sown in fall for their keeping qualities, though they also tend to be pithier. There's no reason not to sow a fall crop of spring radish varieties.

Like all root vegetables, radishes need full sun and fertile, well-drained soil that does not have a lot of rocks or other obstructions to malform the roots as they grow and push their way down.

Root vegetables also need to be sowed far enough apart that the roots don't crowd each other underground. I have to admit that the sow-thickly-and-thin-as-microgreens method does not always result in the best actual radishes, because the thinning is always imperfect. This year I think I'll just sow a crop of radish microgreens and sow another crop of properly space radishes. Here's a good University of Illinois Extension page on growing radishes.

Radishes deserve to be the 2010 One Seed Chicago because they are easy enough for anybody, including beginner gardeners and small children. They can be grown readily in containers. They are uniquely satisfying because they get you to an edible crop so fast -- faster even than lettuce, which is slower to germinate. They are surprisingly versatile in the kitchen.

And they are also clearly the underdog in this race. Many people who have never grown radishes think they don't like them, which means radishes have some serious ground to make up in this election. And who doesn't want to root for the underdog? Not always the smartest way to choose an actual political candidate, but hey, we're talking vegetables here.

So vote for radishes! Early and often!

Got a garden question? I recommend you call or e-mail the Plant Clinic of The Morton Arboretum in Lisle, the Master Gardeners of the University of Illinois Extension or the Plant Information Service of the Chicago Botanic Garden in Glencoe .

All contents of this post are copyright Beth Botts. Feel free to link or share a brief excerpt with a link, but please do not reproduce photos or any other part of this blog without my express permission.


OneSeedChicago said...

Fantastic write-up Beth. Radishes are lucky to have your endorsement!

Bren said...

I love radishes.... the awesome thing about attending local seed swaps is you can learn so many new things about seeds. While at my local seed swap an older lady ( maybe in her late 70's ) graciously put a few packs of these BLACK RADISH SEEDS in my totebag. She told me that I' was going to love these with a good beer! LOL

SHE WAS RIGHT ... and I will never forget that sweet old lady and the seeds you past on to me that I would have never thought to look for not to mention to grow!

Great share about beets!

albo1365-business said...

Great stuff, Beth. I too love radishes. Had some really tender white ones from the farmer's market that were almost buttery when sliced real thin--nice in a salad, or just to eat plain!

Patrick said...

Thanks for the 2011 Treatise on Raddishes, Beth, I know I've tasted ones hot enough to make a scab on your lip.

But I do enjoy looking at the Easter Egg mix in the catalogs. Gotta grow one day soon.