By March I've had my fill of root vegetables. All winter long, I gratineed them, pureed them, roasted and sauteed them. I savored them in soups, blanketed them with cheese and cream and shaved them sensibly into lean, crisp salads.
The one thing I hadn't done with root vegetables was pickle them. Pickling, like preserving, seemed like something one does in seasons of abundance, not in the grip of desperation, when the patrons of farmers' markets are pining for spring.
But then, while biting into a banh mi and crunching happily on the pickled daikon and carrot within, I realized the obvious. Making a spicy, zingy pickle would alleviate the root vegetable doldrums - or, at least, give me something tasty to snack on.
I considered my rooted options. Unlike parsnips and sweet potatoes, which are dense and need cooking, radishes are juicy and can be eaten raw.
Watery root vegetables are best able to absorb the flavor of a pickle brine while maintaining their crunch. That is the key to every great pickle: the piquant meeting of snap and juice. To make the pickle, I used a basic dry brine method that is both easy and fast. The idea is to rub down the vegetables in salt, add spices and flavorings and let the flavors deepen overnight. You can stir in any seasonings you like.
Using the flavor of kimchi as an inspiration, I started with Korean chili flakes (regular chili flakes work well, too). Be sure to use flakes and not powdered chili, which is much more potent. If you prefer a milder pickle, you can halve the amount of flakes. My pickle ended up with a gentle, fleeting burn on the tongue that built as I ate but never became uncomfortable. I also added garlic, ginger and, for a saline zing, anchovy, though fish sauce or dried shrimp can be substituted for more authentic results. Vegetarians can just leave out the fish products entirely.
And lastly, because I had one around, I threw in a bruised lemon grass stalk, which gave a floral, citrus complexity without the acid of lemon or lime. Kaffir lime leaves would have made a similar impression.
When I ate the radishes the next day, they had been transformed from ordinary into thrilling, with flavors bright and spicy enough to get me through to May.
KIMCHI RADISH PICKLE
Adapted from "The Kimchi Cookbook," by Lauryn Chun with Olga Massov.
Time: 45 minutes plus overnight pickling
Yield: 1 quart
1 3/4 pounds radishes (a mix of different types, if possible)
1 1/2 tablespoons coarse kosher salt
2 tablespoons Korean chili flakes (not powder)
1 inch-long piece of fresh ginger root, peeled and grated
1 large garlic clove, minced or grated
3 anchovy fillets (optional)
1/2 teaspoon sugar
1. Scrub radishes well with a vegetable brush under cool running water. If using thick-skinned radishes like watermelon, peel away any hairy or brown spots. (You can either leave the rest of the skin on or peel radishes completely.) If using small table radishes (usually red, purple, pink or white), trim away roots and most of the green stems, leaving 1/8 inch on top. Halve or quarter smaller radishes; cut larger radishes into bite-size wedges.
2. Place radishes in a bowl and toss with salt. Let rest for 20 minutes. Drain radishes in a colander set over a bowl, reserving brined juices. Rinse radishes quickly, then shake them to remove excess water.
3. Prepare the chili paste: In a large bowl, stir together 1/4 cup water with chili flakes, ginger, garlic, anchovies (if using) and sugar. Add drained radishes and mix well to coat with paste. Pack into a 1-quart jar (or 2 smaller jars), then pour the reserved brine into the bowl with the chili paste residue, swish it around to capture leftover seasonings, and pour brine into jar. (The liquid will not cover the radishes.) Cover and let stand at room temperature overnight. Refrigerate and eat within 1 week.