Pull up a little red radish, hose it off and treat yourself to a crisp and juicy bite. Then what? In your hand you're holding a tidy bunch of bright green leaves, young and tender, full of nutrients. Why stop with the root?
If we go through life without ever tasting a radish leaf, it's probably not for lack of flavor. The foliage of radishes is no more strong or pungent than the closely related turnip greens or mustards, popular with many. No, it's the mouth feel. Radish leaves are typically described as hairy, but in fact they're downright prickly, even a bit painful. Your tongue says, “Big mistake.”
Like many edible plants not shaped by breeders for culinary pleasure, radishes don't want to be eaten. They'd rather be left alone so that they can go on and make seeds with which to reproduce themselves, so their scratchy surface probably is a defense. But I've come to appreciate how radish greens are quickly tamed by heat.
The other day, I sliced up a bunch and sauteed them for three minutes with a bit of grated garlic, and it was the perfect side dish for a winter meal. I add radish tops to stir-fries, soups, omelets or any dish that needs some greening up. Even raw, judicious use is possible.
My neighbor Mia slices them into thin ribbons and serves them on top of her famous sesame noodles, where they catch the diner's eye — their prickliness is absorbed by noodleness. I'll bet you could also get away with sticking small leaves into a sandwich or even into a salad, without offending anyone.
It turns out that there are “hairless” radishes. They've probably been there all along, but who noticed? I have grown White Icicle radish many times, but is it true, as the High Mowing Seeds catalogue claims, that they “can be used as salad greens?” Does Johnny's Shunkyo Semi-Long really have “edible, smooth” foliage? Are Burpee's Perfecto and the Cook's Garden's Red Head also salad-worthy? Or have catalogue writers just gotten tired of describing the “white, crisp, juicy flesh” of the roots and their resistance to pithiness and splitting?
Clearly somebody's been working on this, and for quite some time. Catalogues that feature Asian vegetables often have a separate category called leaf radish. The roots of such varieties as Four Season and Hybrid Pearl Leaf from Evergreen Seeds don't even mention the root at all. Apparently they're grown mainly by Koreans for making kimchee.
Evergreen also offers a Japanese one called Hattorikun, for stir-fries, pickles or soups, and a red-stemmed one called Saisai Purple, “good for salad mix.” The catalogue Kitazawa, another encyclopedic source of Asian seeds, calls Saisai “hairless” and Hattorikun “almost hairless.” But do they have tasty roots?
I think I'll do my own trial this spring — simple enough, because radishes are such a quick crop and take up so little space — but I'll be looking for double-duty varieties where I can enjoy both root and leaf. It's best to try the leaves when they are still young and tender and the roots have just formed. Left too long, the stems will get tall and straggly, the roots beyond pithy and into woody. But then the seedpods will appear. Did you know that those, too, are edible? But that's a whole other adventure.