Dawn greets Dorsey Barger as she harvests the radishes that expectant diners hope to find on Eastside Cafe's "Chef's Specials" menu in a few hours. Besides featuring in crudité platters, radishes are roasted for sweetness and their leafy tops sautéed for customers who never thought they'd clamor for more.
Radishes were not on the menu in 1988 when co-owners Barger and chef Elaine Martin opened Eastside Cafe in a 1920s bungalow in Austin, Texas. Even though they grew harvest-to-table vegetables in Eastside's 1/3-acre organic garden, Barger notes: "I think most people had the same experience that I had with radishes, which was that you got the requisite cafeteria two slices on your salad. They were bitter and pretty much a garnish that everyone pushed to the side."
Then, in 2005, Barger had a radish revelation. At The Girl & The Fig, a restaurant in Sonoma, California, she sampled heirloom 'French Breakfast' radishes dabbed with butter and sea salt. She was amazed by the "most fabulous flavors imaginable; explosions of flavors and crunches, sweetness, and tartness. Just the perfect single bite of food."
Today, radishes in all of their variety feature in Eastside's organic garden. A favorite is 'Watermelon', also called 'Red Meat', an heirloom from China. "I call it the gateway radish, because even people who absolutely hate radishes love 'Watermelon'. It's a little sweeter than any radish I've ever tasted but still has some heat," Barger says.
Radishes were such a hit that patrons rooted for more of Martin's crudité platters teamed with zesty Anchovy Herb Butter Dip. Barger expanded her radish repertoire to add the diverse flavors and colors of 'White Icicle', 'Easter Egg', and 'Ping Pong'. And, of course, the classic 'French Breakfast' that led to the radish revival.
Radishes are cool-weather brassicas grown from seed. To avoid bitter harvests, sow seed early enough so that plants mature before temperatures exceed 80°F. Since they're root crops, radishes need loose, well-drained soil in full to partial sun. Barger adds new compost at each sowing, without additional fertilizer. Seeds are small, so sow shallowly, cover lightly with soil, and keep watered until seed germinates. "You can pretty much forget about them after that," says Barger.
Thin seedlings according to packet instructions. Radishes are speedy growers (20 to 50 days, depending on variety), and Barger, gardening in Zone 8, repeat-sows from September to March, then sows again in the spot just harvested, renewed with more compost.