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Thursday, May 23

Gapers Block

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Bitter vegetables can be hard to find if you're looking for them at your local Jewel. Why? Well, cause they're bitter and they're not big sellers, which makes them unprofitable. And since grocery stores exist to make money, not to expand your food horizons, you're not likely to see them.

However, food co-ops and grocery stores that appeal to non-mainstream-American appetites are more likely to carry these vegetables because they exist to support the farmers and they tend to have clients who know what to do with these odd vegetables or are willing to do some research.

Black radish and radicchio are just two examples of vegetables that can be found, or will be handed out by your CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) representative on occasion. And you can either let them fester in the back of your refrigerator for a really long time and eventually throw it away with a quiet "Shucks, I really should have looked up recipes for this odd thing. Oh well," or you could actually do the research and discover a recipe that just might be tastier than you expect it to be. And occasionally, you'll find a recipe that sounds tasty but tastes like "coffee grounds and desolation". And that's where I come in. Or hope to at least. If I can keep at least these two vegetables from residing in the back of your refrigerator, or immediately making their way to your trash can upon your return home, then I'm a happy little cooker.

First the black radish. Imagine one of those cute little red-pink radishes. Now make the skin thick and black (the interior is still white) and then blow it up by 1000% and you end up with a softball sized lump of bitter vegetable that will make your tongue recoil in agony if you were to eat it as is.

But just because it's bitter, doesn't mean it is entirely inedible. You have a few options. You can take your black radishes, toss them into a paper bag and keep them someplace dark, cool and kinda dry for several months like Andy Griffith of Marquita Farm did. After a handful of months, you'll notice that the bitterness is decreased considerably. Andy gives a historical supposition that when all the root vegetables were harvested and stored in the root cellar, the potatoes, carrots, beets and other sweeter roots would have been eaten first. By the time the radishes were gotten to, they'd be milder and therefore more palatable in the late winter/early spring, before the asparagus and other spring vegetables had appeared.

But a more realistic approach, since I'm doubting many of my readers have ever been in a root cellar let alone have one, is to find a way to take the bitter out of the vegetable. And this is where salt becomes your best friend. You'll need a lot of it, so save the fancy sea salt for later. The blue canister with the girl and the umbrella will do just fine.

You will want to coat as much surface area as possible with salt, let it sit for 15-30 minutes, and then rinse the salt away. To get the greatest surface area, I recommend shredding the radish after you've peeled it. Put the grated radish in a bowl, sprinkle it with about a tablespoon of salt and stir it so it is evenly coated. Then put the shredded radish into a small strainer and place it over a bowl. Just let it sit on your counter while you get the rest of the evening's dinner prep underway. You'll be able to see liquid slowly drip from the strainer. That is the bitterness draining away. After about 30 minutes, run it under cold water and then squeeze it to remove as much of the liquid as you can. (I suggest using gloves or putting a plastic baggie over your hands, because either the salt or the vegetable itself gave me a very strong burning sensation in my hands.) Now you're ready to incorporate it into a recipe.

But radicchio is another story. Radicchio is more lettuce-like and shredding it and smothering in salt will take away the bitterness, but it will also take away the substance of the vegetable, turning it into a plate full of yuck. Many Italian recipes call for radicchio to be used more as a flavoring agent than as a stand-alone vegetable. And unlike the radish, it can be eaten untouched. If you get a head of radicchio, you can shred off a small handful and sprinkle it over your lettuce. If you're using a vinagrette or citrus dressing, the tartness of the dressing will be enough to keep the radicchio from overpowering the entire salad. One head should be enough to get you through about 8-10 servings of lettuce since a little goes a long way. Of course, if you have a bitter tooth, feel free to use more.

If you're looking to use it in recipes as a cooked item you'll also want to keep in mind that a little goes a long way, and that radicchio best matches up with very strong flavors. Spicy sausage, prosciutto or bacon, smoky cheeses, mustard, anchovies, vinegars, etc. You want other flavors to be as big as the radicchio so it doesn't overpower everything else you're eating. But since all of those are non-vegan options, adding spiciness and just a little fat is a good substitute. You can either go the Italian route and add chili pepper flakes and olive oil, or you can go the Asian route and add soy sauce, sesame oil and Sriracha (the hot sauce with the rooster on the bottle).

Here are recipes that I've found are good starting points for ways to use these dishes. I encourage you to give them a try.

Black Radish Slaw
1 black radish
1 tablespoon of salt
1 teaspoon of sesame oil
2 tablespoons of rice wine vinegar
1 teaspoon of honey
1 tablespoon of hot water
1/2 teaspoon of Sriracha
2 carrots

Shred the radish, sprinkle with salt and set out to drain in a colander over a bowl. Let this sit for 30 minutes. In a separate bowl, combine the sesame oil, vinegar, honey, hot water and Sriracha. Whisk to combine. Peel two carrots and shred them into the bowl. Place this bowl in the refrigerator to let it chill while the radish finishes draining.

Rinse the radish several times under cool water. With gloved hands, squeeze the radish to remove as much liquid as possible. Once it seems fairly dry, stir it into the carrot mixture. Let it sit in the refrigerator for 30 minutes to 3 hours before serving as a side dish. Fair warning: Leftovers will cause your entire refrigerator to stink for days.
Makes 4-6 servings as a side dish.

Radicchio with Chard and Mustard Sauce
1/2 to 1/4 of a head of radicchio (enough to yield about 1 cup of radicchio strips)
1 head of chard (escarole or spinach would also work)
1 tablespoon of olive oil
1 teaspoon of salt
1 small yellow onion, sliced thinly
1 clove of minced garlic
1 tablespoon of dijon or other hearty mustard
1 tablespoon of balsamic or red wine vinegar
1 teaspoon of olive oil
salt and pepper to taste

Cut the chard into 1-inch strips, or tear the leaves into bite-sized pieces. Rinse well under water and shake or spin dry. Place a skillet over medium heat and add the olive oil. Once it is warm, add the sliced onion and cook for about 3 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add the radicchio and the chard. Cover it with a lid and let it cook for about 3 minutes, with occasional stirring. Just as it starts to wilt, sprinkle the salt over the leaves, cover and let it cook for another 3-4 minutes. If there is a lot of liquid in the pan, drain it and return the skillet to the heat. Sprinkle the garlic over the leaves, reduce the heat to low and cover the skillet while you make the mustard sauce. Combine the mustard, vinegar and olive oil in a small bowl and whisk quickly to combine. Pour this over the greens and stir. Let the sauce warm through before serving. Sprinkle with salt and pepper to taste.
Serves 4-6 as a side dish.

Knowing that salt removes bitter flavors, that strongly tart flavors will balance bitter flavors, and that a little bit of fat will marry flavors together is all helpful when dealing with bitter vegetables. These three nuggets of info will go a long way to help you experiment with some of the odder items you're likely to find at smaller groceries and through your CSA. And just because one experiment fails, don't give up on the entire vegetable.

I'll make an admission now. There is one food that I generally despise, and that is eggplant. However, every time I'm at a restaurant with a friend who orders something with eggplant in it, I'll ask to taste it in the hopes that I'll like it and in the hopes that I'll be able to figure out why I like that dish, but not any of the others I've had. I've come across a few dishes that I've found tolerable to pleasant, but I'm still looking for the nugget of knowledge that will help me figure out what I don't like and what I do like about this vegetable. And I make this admission to prove that if you keep trying foods that you don't like, you just might find one dish, that uses that disliked food, that you do like.

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cliff on rosedale / August 9, 2007 2:55 PM

Thanks for the comment about having a bitter-tooth! My fiancee always looks at me askance when I add capers to anything or open a bottle of lip-smackingly delicious Sierra Nevada IPA.

I can't wait to try the black radish slaw!


About the Author(s)

Cinnamon Cooper is an untrained cook. Most of what she's learned has been by accident. The rest has been gained by reading cookbooks, watching The Food Network and by scouring the Internet. Oh, and she also hates following recipes but loves the irony of writing them down for others to follow.

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