Eavesdropping on a Farmers Market Conversation
Late May in Indiana can be a time of real produce anticipation. Unlike early May, when bedding plants and a few lettuces form the bulk of offered wares, late May brings us a peek into the summer ahead, when fruits and vegetables from local farmers overflow the vendor stands. It’s when my Flyover cooking imagination really starts taking hold.
I was in line at the Christopher Farm stand (run by organic farmer extraordinaire Wendy Carpenter) on Saturday, as a market trip is part of my Saturday morning routine. I overheard a customer in front of me ask Wendy if she knew of Dan Barber (the celebrated chef and sustainable foods advocate). Wendy hadn’t heard of him, but the customer, no doubt looking at her delicious carrots and beets, mentioned that Barber believed the Midwest’s root crops were the best, given the cold winters. I have no idea if Barber ever said that (and while I did read his eye-opening tome The Third Plate, I don’t remember if he discussed them or not). But certainly, many root crops are sweeter after a frost, because they process their starches into sugars. That said, root vegetables are hardly limited to the midlatitudes; cassava (aka manioc—it’s the source of tapioca) is a staple food in places like Nigeria, Brazil, and other low-latitude countries.
Types of Root Vegetables
Perhaps Barber—if he really did say this—was referring to a category of root vegetable based on the taproot, the central root from which other roots grow. Types of taproot vegetables include carrots, parsnips, and yes, the radish (the other category, tuberous roots, would include cassava, yams, and sweet potatoes). Radishes are, to me, a sign that summer is on its way (even if it’s not here yet)–they are one of the first non-lettuce vegetables I find for sale at the farmers market.
The radish (Raphanus sativus) is thought to have originated in southeast Asia. They have been cultivated for millennia far from Asia (e.g. Europe). Although there are varieties that linked to various Asian cuisines (e.g. daikon radish and Japanese cookery), my focus here is mainly on those commonly seen in my Flyover farmers markets.
Although radishes with red spherical taproots (yup, that scarlet orb that you eat is the taproot) are most common, one can find radishes in a variety of colors (e.g. white, purple). Additionally, they may be shaped like stubby fingers instead of globes (such as the spicy French Breakfast radish).
Radishes are typically eaten raw, perhaps in salads, as crudites, or as part of a sandwich. Although their sharp crispness is the appeal for many a radish lover, these can actually be cooked. When subject to heat, radishes become earthy, yet sweet. Any spiciness is tamed (but in a good way!) Later this week I’ll be posting a recipe for radishes cooked in butter—you an even use the radish greens as a garnish.