What’s a watermelon radish, and what do I do with it?
This past Thanksgiving, one kitchen triumph sparked a series of successes, leaving me wishing the season of entertaining would never end.
Let’s start from the top: Boulangere’s chicken liver pâté, which inspired lengthy discussions and much praise, earned a permanent spot on my holiday table. And then, the presence of leftover pâté in my fridge paved the way for bánh mì sandwiches, otherwise a rare treat, to enter my regular meal rotation. And then, because bánh mì sandwiches are nothing without that bite of pickled carrots and daikon, I found purpose for the stash of watermelon radishes occupying my fridge’s vegetable drawer — it turns out watermelon radishes, an heirloom variety of the Chinese daikon radish, make a great pickle.
Happy guests! Culinary prowess! Bánh mì sandwiches! Not a radish wasted! Could this fortuitous cycle continue? It could, and it has, but not without one caveat: Pickled watermelon radishes smell about as inviting as a hockey bag left in a car trunk for a week. Truly, opening a jar of these pickles is risky business, an act proven to send toddlers running and adults shuddering.
I learned this the hard way, when I pulled from the fridge a jar of day-old quickly pickled radishes in hopes of using them for dinner. Upon untwisting the jar, however, I discovered that the day of fermentation had transformed the pickle from piquant to offensive.
Luckily, I also learned that the pungency tempered in as quickly as 15 minutes. And moreover, the pickled radish itself tasted much milder than it smelled, behaving not unlike a nice ripe cheese that just needs some time to breathe. And besides, I would never allow a little stink to deter me from layering these crisp, cool, and sharp slices onto my sandwiches.
Now that I’ve started pickling watermelon radishes in bulk, it’s hard to imagine not having them on hand. From grain bowls to charcuterie platters to simple sandwiches, the addition of this pickle offers that acidic counterpoint so often needed — I can hardly keep myself from reaching for more.
Enthusiasm aside, I’m not sure I’m quite ready to suggest you break out these rosy discs as your new party trick. Or maybe I am. Perhaps a new series of successes is just a pungent pickle away.
Selecting and storing your watermelon radishes:
As with many roots, watermelon radishes should feel heavy for their size, and their skin should feel firm and taut. Avoid watermelon radishes that feel spongy when gently squeezed. They should be stored in the fridge or a cool place, and unlike other radishes, winter radishes store well for at least a month. Also, you don’t have to use the entire radish at once — partially used roots will store for several days in a plastic bag or reusable container in the refrigerator.
Preparing your watermelon radishes:
Wash radishes well before using them, gently scrubbing to remove any dirt. Watermelon radishes do not have to be peeled before using.
Pickling your watermelon radishes:
Before I started pickling radishes in bulk, I would pickle small batches as needed. This 15-minute pickle makes a great addition to any sandwich or grain bowl or noodle dish. You can pickle julienned carrot strips along with the radishes, too, which is a particularly nice combination, but other roots will work as well: parsnips, turnips, celery root, whatever you like!
Using a sharp knife or mandoline, thinly slice your watermelon radishes crosswise into discs, then stack the discs and slice them into thin strips. Place strips in a small bowl, sprinkle with a pinch of salt, a pinch of sugar, and a splash of vinegar. Toss to coat, then set aside. After 15 minutes, the radish strips should have released some liquid and should be somewhat limp. Toss again, then transfer to a serving bowl, leaving any remaining liquid behind.
These days, I pickle my watermelon radishes in bulk, which is nice because it takes no more active time to prepare than the quick pickle and having pickled radish slices on hand is such a treat. Thinly slice your watermelon radishes into discs, then place in a clean canning jar. Alternatively, slice the radishes into tall sticks about half-inch thick and place in the jar.
There are countless ways to make a pickle brine. I have experimented with various combinations for these watermelon radishes: using all vinegar in some batches; half vinegar, half water in others; changing the sugar and salt ratios; changing the type of vinegar; and playing with seasonings from ginger and red pepper flakes to garlic and peppercorns.
I was surprised to find that the all-vinegar brines were too potent for the radishes, and that I favored white distilled vinegar over white wine or white balsamic vinegars. Also, the variation I thought I would love — slivered ginger and red pepper flakes — was too dominating. In the end, my favorite brine was a simple mix of equal parts distilled vinegar and water, a small amount of sugar and salt, and garlic and peppercorns — the garlic permeates the radish without overwhelming its flavor. See here for the full recipe.
Don’t feel like pickling? Here are a few other ideas:
- Shave your radishes into a grain salad threaded with pecans and dried cranberries, brightened with mint and tarragon, and dressed with sherry vinegar and walnut oil.
- Roast them with daikon radishes, then toss with a horseradish-chèvre dressing.
- Make Deborah Madison’s jicama, orange, and watermelon radish salad tossed with avocados and a cumin-lime vinaigrette.
- Make a raw carrot, beet, and watermelon radish salad tossed with basil, orange, and a hefty splash of cider vinegar.
Pickled watermelon radishes
See the full recipe (and save it and print it) here.
Makes 1 cup
1 to 2 watermelon radishes
1/2 cup distilled white vinegar
1/2 cup water
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 teaspoon sugar
2 cloves garlic, peeled
1/2 teaspoon peppercorns, lightly crushed