Radish season is in full swing, and I have been buying a bunch a week since they first appeared a month ago. I very much like radis roses, the pink, elongated ones with a white bottom that look like so many pink mice, but I don’t turn my nose at the red globes, and certainly not at the multicolored bouquets.
I pay attention to the color and vigor of radish leaves: not only are they a telltale sign of freshness, but I intend to eat them, too.
In fact, it is not so much the color or shape of the bulbs I pay attention to when I shop, but the color and vigor of their leaves*: first, because they are a telltale sign of freshness, and second, because I intend to eat them — a habit I’ve taken up in the spirit of frugality, eco-friendliness, and kitchen craftiness.
Radish leaves have a flavor that I would situate somewhere between watercress and nettles, but a few notches milder. The texture of the larger leaves can be a bit rough so they’re not ideal for salads, but they make fine soups and gratins (I add them to my Swiss chard gratin), and they work beautifully in pesto, which is what I make with them most often.
When I get back from the market, I separate the leaves from the bulbs. I refrigerate the latter — radishes should be washed moments before eating — while I rinse and dry the leaves like I do herbs, discarding any that are limp or discolored. I then store them in a container in the fridge until I’m ready to use them — but no longer than a day.
I prefer to remove the stems, so I simply tear them off, and keep only the leaves, which I put in my mini-chopper (this kit is the handiest appliance I’ve ever bought) and mix with garlic, pistachios, shavings of pecorino, and olive oil.
The recipe below is really just a guide: the concept of pesto as a purée of greens, hard cheese, and nuts, is very forgiving and can be adapted to what you have on hand. You can use more or less cheese, more, fewer, or no nuts at all, add a little lemon peel, which brightens up the whole, and/or throw in other fresh leafy herbs that need using or pruning.
I like to make a thick pesto initially, and thin it out as needed. I have been using this one to dress the bucatini we bought in Rome (I combine the pesto with a little cooking water from the pasta to make an unctuous sauce), to flavor polenta, to line the crust of vegetable tarts, to garnish sandwiches and tartines, to rub a rack of lamb, and to stuff oven-roasted fish. I also have plans to try my hand at potato gnocchi soon, and will likely serve them with radish leaf pesto.
And while we’re on the subject of radishes, I’ll take this opportunity to remind you of my preferred way of eating them: with mashed avocado and smoked salt. I’ve also been slicing them thinly (by hand or in a food processor) and adding them to salads for piquancy and crunch. It was particularly successful in the salad of avocado and purslane (a variety called Clayton de Cuba) below, topped with a multigrain cracker, itself spread with radish leaf pesto and very good prosciutto.
* In French, a leaf is une feuille, but there is another word, une fane, for the leaves of certain plants that are cultivated chiefly for another part, such as carrots and radishes. Radish leaves are thus referred to as fanes de radis.
- 2 large handfuls of good-looking radish leaves, stems removed
- 30 grams (1 ounce) hard cheese, such as pecorino or parmesan, grated or shaved using a vegetable peeler
- 30 grams (1 ounce) nuts, such as pistachios, almonds, or pinenuts (avoid walnuts, which make the end result too bitter in my opinion)
- 1 clove garlic, germ removed, cut in four
- a short ribbon of lemon zest cut thinly from an organic lemon with a vegetable peeler (optional)
- 2 tablespoons olive oil, plus more to get the consistency you like
- ground chili pepper
- Put all the ingredients in a food processor or blender or mini-chopper, and process in short pulses until smooth. You will likely have to scrape down the sides of the bowl once or twice. This produces a thick pesto; add more oil and pulse again to get the consistency you prefer. (This can also be done with a mortar and pestle; it's great for your karma and your triceps.)
- Taste, adjust the seasoning, and pack into an airtight container -- I use a repurposed glass jar.
Use within a few days (it will keep longer if you pour a thin layer of oil on the surface) or freeze.