One of my kitchen goals this year, apart from stocking up my pantry with key ingredients that let me cook with a twist of Asian flavor (check out my Kitchen Project), is to discover and learn to cook with seasonal vegetables that are new to me. At the beginning of Spring, we started subscribing to a CSA farm share, and I've since had the pleasure of meeting many new farm-fresh produce, not all of which I've known what to do with however.
Fortunately, I'm blessed with blogger friends who are kind enough to help me out, and I'm learning so much from these big-hearted vegetable-loving folks! So this is what's happening on Vermilion Roots this Spring: I'll be tackling one vegetable a week with their guidance and sharing my kitchen adventure every Wednesday. I call it Spring Discovery, and not only am I excited to put the spotlight on some amazing vegetables, I'm also thrilled to bring your attention to some wonderful bloggers and websites that I know you'll love.
When I think of spring, I think of color, freshness and crunch. And it brings to mind my first bite of the cherry belle radish last year when I first moved from Malaysia to the US and was eager to try new foods. I had just been eating radishes plain and raw on their own, and I thought it was time I really get to know these precious jewels of the earth. I asked Danielle Majeika of the blog Rooting The Sun how she likes radishes best and she said, "plucked straight from the earth and on toast with butter and salt. Radish tartine through and through."
Danielle grows radishes and many other vegetables in her garden, and writes passionately about the subject of food sustainability on her blog. "Spring is a poetic moment in the garden," she told me. "Garlic is growing taller and greener with each hour of sun, spinach and kale revel in the cool and clean temperatures, and radishes and peas sift calmly through the soil. There are many beginnings, and a much delighted hum and buzz following the bitter chaos we're prone to in the winter here."
What does eating seasonally mean to her, I asked. "Eating seasonally is being able to engage and connect yourself with the immediate nature that surrounds you. I think it's a choice that is highly personal yet beneficial to self, the community, and the environment. When seasonally resourced (or personally grown), food tastes fresher, is cheaper, has less of an environmental footprint, and is able to perpetuate a generally positive agricultural cycle. It depends on what you're in it for. Ethics, economics, purity, taste? Nobody should ever be shamed for their food choices, but as long as knowledge is made available then we are able to make informed decisions tailored to our needs and ideals."
Through Danielle, I learned more about the radish and gained an understanding that "the connection forged between season, ingredient and food is an important and beautiful one". It's a situation I'm often faced with when trying to recreate some of my favorite Southeast Asian dishes here and being stumped by the lack or scarcity of certain ingredients. Given how difficult and expensive it can be to source some of these "exotic" ingredients, I'm willing to let practicality and sustainability replace accuracy, and believe that fusion cooking is sometimes necessary, if not inevitable, in seasonal eating.
Approaching food from this angle has given me the liberty and creativity to incorporate local California ingredients into recipes from my home country. That's how radishes found their way into this Malaysian Nyonya acar awak recipe of vegetables pickled in a spicy paste. And I think they made themselves right at home in this recipe.
Getting to Know Radishes with Danielle Majeika of Rooting The Sun
Radishes in a nutshell: Radishes are an edible root, generally cultivated year-round but they entertain a significant peak of tenderness and freshness in the spring and winter months.They are part of the crucifer/brassica family, with relatives such as horseradish, rutabaga and turnip. They are rich in vitamin C and fiber, as well as contain anti-inflammatory and detoxifying properties.
Varieties: Radishes come in all shapes and sizes. They range from globular shaped to oblong, and cover just about every color in the spectrum. A few iconic varieties include the French Breakfast radish, the Watermelon radish and Daikon radish. Most often the market carries a variety known as Cherry Belle, the quintessential salad slicing breed.
Describe the taste: Raw, radishes have a distinct peppery bite (complimented beautifully by a touch of salt). This sensation is produced by a compound likewise present in horseradish, wasabi and mustards. When cooked, radishes maintain a much more mellow flavor.
How to select and store: When selecting radishes, look for options that are smooth skinned, without cracks, and full for their size. If the tops are available, look for fresh greens. Store radishes with the tops removed, as they will poach moisture from the root. Scrub radishes clean and rinse them beneath cool water. Store in a ziploc, separated by paper towels, with the air removed. They will last well beyond a week.
How to prepare: When preparing radishes, remove the tops first, but reserve them! Eat them within a day or two. They are delicious sauteed, made into a pesto, fashioned into soup, or added to salad. Enjoy as you would other edible greens. Prepare radish as your recipe calls for. Cut in half length-wise, then once more, and further into half moons if desired.
How to use: Radishes are most frequently enjoyed raw, in salad, or on toast. Other preparations include pickling, for use in relish or salsa, sauteed for stir-fry, braised or roasted. They are incredibly versatile and lend themselves well to most vegetable preparations.
Fun fact: Hot weather and drought aid in the spice factor of radishes. The hotter the year, the spicier the radish. A cooler year yields more mellow radishes.
Come back next Wednesday to get to know another vegetable in the Spring Discovery series. Leave me a comment below and let me know what other spring produce I should try. And do drop by Danielle's beautiful blog Rooting The Sun for more vegetable inspiration.
Malaysian Pickled Vegetables with Radish (Acar)
A hallmark of many Southeast Asian dishes is the balance of different flavors like salty, sweet, sour and spicy all in one and textures that deliver the taste effectively. This Malaysian Nyonya style pickle gets its bite from an aromatic spice paste and crunch from ground peanuts. The radish, though not a usual choice in the recipe, fits right in with its distinct peppery taste and gentle crispness. And adds a nice pop of color! This recipe makes a 1 quart jar and is adapted from a recipe by my Malaysian friend Curious Nut.
3 medium carrots, cut into 2-inch long medium-thick sticks
1 large English cucumber, deseeded and cut crosswise into 1/2-inch slices
1 small cabbage, chopped into medium pieces
10 radishes, quartered
1/2 tablespoon salt
1 big or 2 small shallots
3 cloves garlic
1 1/2-inch galangal or ginger
1 lemongrass stalk, white part only, chopped
1 red chili (more if you like it hotter)
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
3 to 4 tablespoons apple cider vinegar
1/4 cup palm or coconut sugar
1/2 cup roasted ground peanuts
1 tablespoon sesame seeds
In a large bowl, toss all the chopped vegetables, except cabbage, with salt and set aside for at least 30 minutes. The salt will draw water from the vegetables. Rinse the vegetables and drain well. Shake off excess liquid and towel dry the vegetables.
You want all the vegetables to be completely dry. To achieve that, you can either leave them out to dry or speed up the process by arranging them in a single layer on a baking sheet and popping them into the oven at 200° F for about 15 minutes.
In the meantime, place shallots, garlic, galangal/ginger, lemongrass and chili in a blender and blend until you get a smooth paste. If necessary, add water 1 tablespoon at a time to get the paste moving.
Heat up oil in a pan over medium heat. Add the spice paste and stir-fry until the oil and paste are emulsified, about 10 minutes. Turn off the heat and immediately stir in apple cider vinegar, sugar, ground peanuts and sesame seeds. Then add the vegetables and toss to coat well.
Allow to cool. You can serve immediately, but acar gets better after a few days or at least overnight. Transfer to an airtight container and store in the refrigerator for up to a month, but I doubt it will last that long. Enjoy as a snack or a side dish. It is lovely with rice and can even work as a condiment in sandwiches or wraps.