The Night of the Radishes (Noche de rábanos) is celebrated every year on December 23 in the zócalo (main plaza) of Oaxaca city in Mexico. It began in 1897 and has grown steadily in size and complexity every since, so that it is now an international attraction. Even though the event only lasts a few hours it merges seamlessly into the activities of Christmas Eve and Christmas Day with their parades, fireworks, dancing, and feasting.
It is one of the most impressive vegetable festivals in the world. Mexican craftsmen and farmers carve giant radishes that are especially grown for the purpose into artistic designs, usually representing saints or other religious figures, nativity scenes, or anything else the natural shape of the radish suggests. The basic radish used is a large red radish weighing up to 3 kilos (6.6 lbs). To grow this big they are left in the ground for months after the normal harvest, constantly watered and tended.
Other materials may be added to the radish sculptures for effect, but the basic principle is the creative incising and peeling of the red skin of the radishes to reveal the white flesh beneath. It’s probably best just to show some images to get the idea.
The radish was a well-established crop in Hellenistic and Roman times, suggesting it was domesticated a lot earlier, but there is almost no archeological record on which to base its earlier history. Wild forms of the radish and its relatives, the mustards and turnip, can be found over west Asia and Europe, suggesting that their domestication took place somewhere in that area. Radishes were introduced into the New World in the sixteenth century and have been a staple crop ever since.
Radishes can be divided into spring and autumn varieties. Spring varieties are typically small, red, and bulbous, growing very quickly, whereas autumn radishes are large and cylindrical, taking months to mature. The two commonest varieties of autumn radish are the Spanish black and the Japanese daikon.
The spring radish has to be the easiest vegetable to grow in the world, and my garden was never complete without a succession of them from early spring to early summer. You simply pop the seeds into loose soil (I usually used patio containers), water them, and step back. They emerge in a few days and are ready to eat in 2 to 4 weeks. If you cannot grow radishes you really are a hopeless case. Many home gardeners companion plant them with seeds that germinate more slowly in order to mark the rows.
I am told the leafy tops are edible but I have never tried it. For one thing you would need a lot of radish greens to make a single dish, although some varieties are leafier than others. The recipes I have seen involve shredding the leaves and poaching them in stock much as you would turnip greens. To make the most of the sparse greens it is perhaps best to blend the cooked greens and stock with cream to make a soup flavored with a little freshly ground pepper. Worth a try if you are looking to experiment with something new.
Radishes are normally eaten raw, of course, but they can be cooked. With their general aversion to raw foods I imagine Medieval people cooked radishes. Certainly they would have pickled them, and pickled radishes can still add an attractive note to salads, although these days you would probably have to pickle them yourself. Asian radishes are much more commonly found commercially pickled (shredded). You might at least try roasting radishes, perhaps the next time you have a roast in the oven. It is simplicity itself and produces a slightly sweet dish that goes well with roasted meats.
© Roasted Radishes
Preheat the oven to 450°F/250°C.
Wash and then top and tail 1 lb (or whatever quantity you want) of very fresh radishes.
Toss the radishes in a bowl with extra virgin olive oil, salt, and freshly ground black pepper. You can also add some dried herbs to the mix. Rosemary is especially good.
Place the oiled radishes in one layer on a baking sheet, and bake for 15 minutes.
Every few minutes shake the baking sheet to make sure the radishes brown evenly, and if necessary stir them around with a wooden spoon so that all get even heat.
Serve piping hot as a side dish.
[Small hint: you can use this method with just about every vegetable I know. If you are not roasting leeks or carrots or parsnips you are not living right.]