Fighting Fire With Fire

Those who know me well, know that I have both an affinity and a prodigious capacity for raw vegetables. I have a tendency to fill a 2-3 quart mixing bowl with grated or chopped raw vegetables, add a little salt and some kind of dressing and call it salad. This can be a bit much for Teacherman, who can think of more appealing side dishes than an entire English cucumber, seasoned with nothing but salt.

Tonight, though, I was alone for dinner, and my vegtabular overindulgence of choice was radishes. I don’t find radishes particularly exciting, but I’m continually seduced by their physical beauty, and by the innumerable rhapsodies of many of my favorite writers. I want to love radishes with butter and sea salt, the way everyone else seems to, but I just . . . don’t. I don’t hate it, but neither do I understand it–to me, the flavors don’t work together. No matter how tasty the butter is on its own, its flavor is obscured by the spiciness of the radish, and the added salt is entirely separate from the other two ingredients, startling with its harshness (again, no matter how mild the salt is on its own).

I keep buying radishes, though. I slice them into salads, take them on picnics to eat whole, and, depending on the variety, grate them into soups. At the farmer’s market yesterday, casting about for something to make a salad out of, I noticed a big basket of watermelon radishes. They were pretty–off-white on the outside and brilliantly magenta on the inside, with a line of pale green on the border–and also cheap. I spent $2 and got an enormous bunch.

Tonight, as I began to slice the radishes for a side salad, I put a disc into my mouth. Explosion!

They weren’t the spiciest radishes I’ve ever tasted, but it did actually burn the inside of my mouth. I obviously could not eat an entire bowl of such flaming spiciness, no matter how refreshingly crunchy. I had heard somewhere, years ago, that cooking radishes could tame their assertiveness. In an attempt to save my dinner, I grated the entire bunch of radishes, then threw them into a pan with some olive oil. I sauteed them over medium heat for a few minutes–10 or 15–and then dressed the limp slivers with the same ingredients I would have put on the raw salad. A big squeeze of lemon juice, some minced green olives and garlic, and a sprinkling of white pepper. I tipped the mess into a big bowl and topped it with a few thin slices of leftover steak.

Unexpectedly, it was incredibly comforting. The radish mixture was salad-like, but (obviously), it was warm and slightly yielding. The radishes were still spicy, but no longer incendiary, and the flavor had melded with that of the dressing. The olives negated the need for salt, heightening the flavor of the radishes, and the garlic added a bit of sweetness, but the seasoning star was the white pepper. White pepper is more warming than spicy, but its peppery backnotes played off of the radishes well. It rounded out the flavors, adding an almost smoky meatiness to the salad.

I ate the entire bowlful, which, as usual, was far too much; my stomach is now stretched as tight as a drum. I’d feel embarrassed to admit to the average person that I ate myself into this amount of discomfort on radishes, but the dish was delicious, and, on reflection, I do not regret a single bite.

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Published in: on October 12, 2008 at 6:38 pm  Leave a Comment  

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