Tuesday, April 7, 2015

How to eat radishes

Nothing says spring like these beauties
On a hike in Guatemala once I passed a farmer with a huge bunch of radishes slung over his shoulder almost like a slain deer.  They were big and round and that luminous shade of perfect red, black volcanic dirt still clinging to their little white tails.  Impressive as the harvest was, I was a bit surprised that a subsistence farmer would bother growing them, since they seem to have virtually no caloric value, little flavor (this mild French variety, at least), and few specific uses that I could think of.  In short, I've never understood radishes--you can't really cook them, and there's not that much to be done with them raw.  When I was a kid my mom would serve them, topped and tailed, on a saucer with a well of salt in the middle.  Dipping the moist radishes in the salt was kind of exciting, especially since we normally followed a minimal sodium diet.  But this was more a curiosity than a meal.  Later I learned that the French, who have a knack for finding the simplest and best way to use most any ingredient, eat them with nothing more than a smear of butter (sweet butter, presumably).  This is delicious, of course, but it rather strains the imagination to think of something that wouldn't taste good slathered in butter.

Getting a-head of myself?
In seemingly unrelated news (spoiler alert--not unrelated by the end), three years ago the farmers' market was practically giving away pigs' heads ($5, well, a head).  I bought one and scoured the Internet for advice on what to do with the damn thing, settling fairly quickly on a recipe for porchetta di testa (head cheese, loosely) by Chris Cosentino:

It felt more like a high school science project than a recipe at first, but in the end the whole process was a lot easier than I would have thought.  My pig's head came ear-less and tongue-less, so I didn't bother cleaning it with anything more than water.  Wary of getting into things like vacuum bags, I simply steamed it on a cookie rack in a big pot, adding water periodically until it was fork-tender after 3-4 hours.  I arranged slices on a platter with lemon wedges, capers, and radishes, and brought it to a holiday party as an appetizer.  I kept apologizing for bringing something so weird, but everyone tried it and loved it.  I still had plenty left over to share with family over Christmas vacation.  Being ardent fans of traditional German head cheese, they were duly taken with this Italianesque version.  With the de-meated skull I made pozole, the rich Mexican soup of giant white corn, red chilies, and--you guessed it--pig's head.

The meat "butterflied" from the skull
A week ago pig's heads once again came into "season" at the farmers' market, as the family pork butchers clear out their meat to make way for plants and eventually vegetables.  The price had gone up to $10 a head--I neglected to weigh mine, but that must work out to well under $1 a pound.  Recoil at the gruesomeness if you will, but I defy anyone to get more nutrition and flavor for anywhere near that price.  Between the head cheese and pozole, one pig's head easily generates a full week's meals.  I was eager to repeat the recipe I'd used three years ago, but I wanted to come up with a better way of cooking the rolled meat--steaming had left it rather grayish and a bit bland.  The oven, I was afraid, would leave it far too tough.  Then it hit me: why not put it in the charcoal-powered vapor smoker I'd picked up a couple years ago for almost nothing at a rummage sale and was always looking to get more use out of?

Loaded with rosemary, garlic, lemon rind, and fennel
Pink, tender, juicy, and aromatic
In a sense, this was the most successful smoker project ever: I loaded the machine with charcoal, soaked hickory chips, and turned cider, put the rolled head in, patiently waited and waited and waited, fighting the urge to open it up and lose precious heat but clueless as to how well it was cooking, since it was too tough even to prick with a thermometer.  About six hours later, it was dark and the fire was dying, so I stuck a long fork into the meat and, to my amazement, it was tender as a canned ham.  A thermometer probe confirmed 160 all the way through, safe to eat.  Every other time I've used the smoker I've run out of charcoal or light or both before whatever meat I'm working on is done.

This time the meat was pink and richly redolent of smoke--legitimately comparable to prosciutto, or salami.  I "plated" it on a bed of the first arugula of the season, and garnished it with capers and thinly sliced lemon.  The skin remained incredibly tough (hard to slice, even), but other than that it was an orgy of tantalizing textures and richly nuanced flavors--in short, a singular appetizer.  But as I was munching on it, I had a strange thought:

I missed the radishes.  

Eye-catching and mouth-watering
Three years ago I'd made the head cheese in December, and I still had some radishes kicking around in the fridge from the last harvest before Thanksgiving (they keep remarkably well).  They were a little tired, but they were ineffably perfect with the head cheese.  But this year I was much too late for last year's radishes and not quite late enough for this year's.  Yet their lightness and moistness and crunch and delicacy and blandness go so well with this dish.  Strange as it sounds, the best way to eat radishes is with a pig's head.

All that's left of This Little Piggy