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Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Mighty Fine Swine

"Society" frowns upon beastiality, and with good reason. It's hard enough handling the usual nutjobs on the subway, but what if I had to share a seat with goat-woman or llama-man? Sure, I'd try not to stare. Maybe pretend not to notice the smell. And even offer directions to Times Square (when asked). But dollars to donuts, I'd be itching for the nearest exit.

That being said, some animals are hard to resist. Tops on the list? The fine swine sold by Flying Pigs Farm.

Let me back up a bit, about 2 years, to a fresh summer day. I was sipping lemonade, listening to that Jazzy Jay song and watching the world go by, when lo and behold Ms. Slab came home... with a pound of bacon. Yes, good reader, everything was coming up Slab.

Then I looked a little closer: 12$ a pound?! Adjusted for inflation, that's almost $12.74 in 2006 dollars... or 1/3 of what I sold my car for. Could any bacon justify this price? I fried up a slice to find out. And another. And another and another. And then I asked Ms. Slab where she found such ridiculously good stuff. Her answer? Flying Pigs. And so our story begins in earnest.

Flying Pigs may well have the tastiest bacon I've ever eaten. It is my most enjoyable splurge, the sizzle in my shizzle, an incentive to get out of bed. It also inspired The Porkchop Express to track these folks down, and chew the proverbial fat with some genuine flavor geniuses.

Flying Pigs Farm is Mike Yezzi and Jen Small, neither of whom looks the part: no overalls, no straw of "chewing hay," no corncob pipe, no quaint old-timey stories, and relatively smooth hands. In 1995, they bought an old farm in Shushan, NY. At the time, both held advanced degrees (in public health and law) and regular jobs (in healthcare and non-profit consulting). But they spent their odd time fixing up the property: a chicken coop, a couple of barns, and 150 acres of land. What to do with all that space? In 2000 they had an idea: head down to the Reynolds Brothers to buy a few hogs.

I've never met the Reynolds, but I imagine they do look the farmer part. And at 80-something years of age, they've certainly seen their fair share of business. So when Mike and Jen came asking for 10 swine, the Brothers were understandably skeptical. So skeptical, in fact, that they only parted with 3.

There's something to be said for pluck, and when Mike and Jen returned next year they were given a few more pigs for their pen. It was around then that they looked to broaden their audience, and started trekking (over 200 miles each way) to New York City to peddle weekend pork at the Greenmarkets. Which is where, by a delicious twist of fate, Ms. Slab happened across their bacon one fine afternoon.

To hear Mike tell it, starting a premium pork business is as easy as cajoling two old cranks into giving up a few hogs. But in truth, they learned alot on the job: about pigs (smart to the point of mischievous, especially in groups); about farming (feeding, nursing, housing); and about the business itself (how and where to pitch product). The first few years weren't cheap. Expenses outweighed profits, but they stuck with it. And in hindsight, they made the right move. You see, Mike and Jen were pork pioneers, some of the first to revive an increasingly popular trend: the production of heritage meat.

Heritage pigs–like the Tamworths, Large Blacks, and Gloucestershire Old Spots raised at FP Farm–are rare breeds whose numbers dwindled after the pork industry turned to sturdier, low-lard "cost-effective" breeds. These pigs generally derive from old American and European strains, and are renowned for terrific marbling, silky texture, and bright flesh. They are also a relative pain to raise: heritage breeds eat alot, need space to roam, and mature more slowly than their commercial cousins.

As Flying Pigs rightly notes, the survival of rare hogs depends on two things: farmers willing (and able) to rear them, and a public willing (and able) to buy them. As recently as a few years back, the odds were against. Especially for small farmers, who pay up to 8 times the cost of federally-subsidized feed, and lose out on kickbacks for things like manure lagoons (waste disposal pits known to contaminate ground water).

Flying Pigs weathered early storms, steadily building business with a loyal clientele of consumers and chefs alike. They also took some initiative, helping start the Farm to Chef Express in 2004. Funded with grants from Cornell and the NY Aggie Department, this program unites upstate farmers and metropolitan markets. The arrangement is mutually beneficial: it helps satisfy an increasing big city demand for "premium" heritage and organic foods; it brings money to less affluent, rural communities upstate; it sets prices and builds market share; and it helps small farmers (for whom the cost of transporting their products can be prohibitively high) distribute delicious foodstuffs throughout the northeast. (This is why you can find Flying Pigs araucana eggs at Murray's Cheese, and taste their delicious pork in restaurants from Vermont to Brooklyn.)

All this is well and good, and The Porkchop Express appreciates sustainable small farming to the fullest. But if it wasn't for the flavor, we might not be as enthused. After all, Flying Pigs really do taste great. Left to roam and root on grasses, wildflowers, and weeds, these hogs lead hormone-free, low-stress, Certified Humane lifestyles. All of which adds up to bright, silky flesh marbeled with wonderful fat. And although prices limit the audience, this is one item with (given the time, expense, and energy invested, and deliciousness returned) solid flavor-value.

But enough chat; time for the phat.

First up are pork chops: Tamworths (an old English breed and close relative of the wild boar heralded for its bacon); and Large Blacks (a droopy-eared English pig developed from Chinese livestock). At $14/lb. and cut to about 1 ½” thick, these will run you about 8 or 9$ a chop. The Tams were a bit bigger, and smelled like bacon when cooked. The Large Blacks (above), equally unreal and a bit more manageable, were rich like a great steak. But their intensity was different: mild and wild (you know this is Boar's cousin), handsome enough for the living room yet versatile enough for the kitchen. Cook them like we did above, in a little butter and olive oil. Make sure the heat is neither too high (the meat will tense up) nor too low (you want a nice golden crust), and undercook it just a bit. Let it rest a few minutes, and you wont be sorry. These were some of the juiciest, porkiest chops we've ever had, so satisfying that the sour cream & dill sauce I made with the drippings was unnecessary. Delicious, but unnecessary.

We were pretty amazed by the rich flavor of marbeled pig, so we turned to an especially silken cut next. Enter the "Shoulder Butt." These run 9.50$/lb., meaning you will pay for all that delicious fat. But it's a sound investment, one of my favorites of the taste tests.

Never tried a shoulder? No worries: here's a simple way to get your pork on, courtesy of The Porkchop Express. Brown the Butt evenly on all sides in a little oil and butter (over medium heat, taking care not to burn). Let it sit while you chop up your aromatics. We used fresh garlic cloves and greens, and sliced leaks. Soften these in your pot over medium heat with a little salt, then add sliced carrots and a bay leaf and toss. Add a little water or white wine to deglaze, then put that pork shoulder back in. Add hot water no more than halfway up the pork, cover, and put it in a low-and-slow oven. Count on at least 3 hours at around 300 degrees; the density of the fat means slow-melting and automatic braising. It's good to turn the meat every 30 minutes or so. And we added some English peas to the mix, some at the beginning (to braise) and the rest at the end (to maintain their color and shape). Grate a little lemon rind when it's done cooking, to perk things up and compliment those savory flavors. Serve it with mashed potatoes, or even cous cous. And when all is said and done, this is what it will look like right before that beeline to your mouth:

Not to beat a dead hog, but Flying Pigs Bacon is one of those things that, no matter how full I am, the minute it hits the pan is the minute I want some right away. This presents a logistical problem because bacon is best cooked with great care, slow and low over a small flame to render the fat without burning the meat.

No such painful wait for the riot-worthy "Canadian Style Bacon" ($18/lb). You know the old “Pavlov” experiment, where dogs are conditioned to come a-running? FP's CB rings that bell for me. Especially the fatty parts, which are typically (and conspicuously) absent in lesser cuts. I’ve been asking Canadians for years what they call this stuff, and to no avail. No matter, tenderloin-turned-bacon is as good as it sounds, and painfully addictive to boot.

Speaking of "tenderloin," FP's ($18/lb) is tops. We loved the ribbon of fat clinging to this fork-tender strip of goodness: it added immensely to the flavor, and helped keep the meat moist during cooking. We patted ours with salt and pepper, browned it in a little oil, tossed it in a 400 degree oven for about 10 minutes (the pork reached ~145 degrees), and let it sit. In the by, we added some shallots, white wine, and a little whole grain mustard to the drippings. When all was said and done, we served a few slices with fresh English peas sautéed in butter, leeks and Flying Pigs bacon ends.

So why are you still reading this? Get out there and give Flying Pigs a go... because that, my friend, is some seriously sexy pork!

Til Tuesday,

–J. Slab

Where To Find
  • Contact and ordering information is online
  • Or check out the Greenmarkets at Union Square (Manhattan) and Grand Army Plaza (Brooklyn), every Saturday until around 2 pm
  • Flying Pigs also sells terrific araucana eggs (with the crowd-pleasing blue/green shells), lamb, sausage, and smoked hams

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Tuesday, June 20, 2006

High on the Hog

For yours truly, watching the NBA finals or the World Cup is like looking in a mirror. What do I see? A superhuman specimen of fitness, endurance and strength, with a relentless will to win. The biggest stars always carry the weight of a nation on their shoulders; every move is cheered by millions, and jeered by many more. So goes life in the athletic spotlight, as The Porkchop Express knows all too well.

Still, skeptical reader, you might wonder how I maintain an Adonis-like physique and limitless drive towards perfection when my sport is eating. Free weights and nautilus? Jazzercize and Tae Bo? No, no, no and no. The answer is as simple as it spells: pork.

Forget all that “jogging” and “bulimia” and “methamphetamines” nonsense. The real movie-star secret to glory and fame begins with a dietary shift to delicious. And what is more delicious than pork?

Before and after: what a difference pork makes!

With chicken-like leanness, remarkable versatility and flavor to spare, pork seems a natural fit for most anyone’s lifestyle. After all, the world's oldest domesticated livestock (predating the plough) is also its most popular: each year we eat about 175 pounds (80 kg) of meat, 40% of which is pork. Nor is the pig's appeal confined to the dinner table. From resourceful (Babe) to stammering (Porky) to diva (Miss Piggy) to delicious (bacon), delightful hog-based figures have captured hearts, stomachs and imaginations for generations.

But this is only half the story. Despite its #1 status, the pig is curiously stigmatized, like Coca Cola trapped in a Mountain Dew can. The roots of this prejudice run deep–Old Testament and Qur'an deep–back to a time when trichinosis likely put the fear of God in folks. But even in colonial America, stuffy English settlers insisted the pig was fit only for Natives and slaves. Its nickname (swine) hardly changed minds, nor did the creature's reputation as "the foulest, the most brutish" of all quadrapeds.

The misguided persistence of anti-hog hyperbole helps explain why, about 20 years ago, the National Pork Board introduced a now-familiar "Other White Meat" advertisement. The idea was pretty simple: pork is good and good for you, far closer to chicken (in health terms) than beef. Furthermore, the campaign was a rousing success. Yet it came at a cost to the flavor-conscious: in the past two decades, pork has gotten considerably leaner.

Why is this a bad thing? As you know, good reader, The Porkchop Express is extremely pro-delicious. And meat derives terrific taste and tenderness from marbling, muscular fat that makes chops sing and keeps braises buttery. In stressing pork's health virtues, farmers went too far. All joking aside, they bred their pigs too thin.

Or so lean, lifeless supermarket chops suggest. To get to the bottom of all this, The Porkchop Express put in a few calls to Iowa and spoke with NPB Director of Animal Science Mark Boggess.

Boggess is a good sport, and he walked me thru Porkology 101. I learned that US market hogs are slaughtered at 6 or 7 months of age. Nowhere near full grown, they run 4 to 5 feet (from snout to tail), and average 265 pounds (ranging anywhere from 220 to 300). Most American-farmed pigs are hybrids bred to maximize desirable qualities (everything from musculature to maternal instincts). Yorkshire or Landrace sows and Duroc or Hampshire fathers are the most common mixes.

Greetings from the Heartland!

One of the things that struck me was the precision with which Boggess discussed his trade: the NPB clearly has pork-rearing down to a science. Literally. Take, for example, their Ph. balance monitors. A convenient and stable means of predicting texture, higher alkaline levels (6.0, as opposed to 5.5) confirm a more tender product. Such tests tend to measure what your tastebuds might tell you in a pinch. But they also introduce a practical means of quality control, and give producers a greater hand in breeding pigs with marketable characteristics. This was especially true in the mid-1990s, when farmers sought to satisfy the increased demand for leaner cuts.

Around this time, the National Pork Producers Council commissioned a study to compare genetic lines of pigs and identify distinguishing characteristics. The tests made lean-pork production more efficient, but they also confirmed the deliciousness of heritage strains: breeds like the Berkshire–the prized kuro-buta beloved in Japan–which possess juicier, richer meat with great marbling and texture.

No matter how you measure, some pigs are simply tastier. And, health fads notwithstanding, the past decade has seen an increased demand for delicious. The market for rare North American and European breeds like Berkshires, Tamworths, and Gloucestershire Old Spots is on the rise, especially amongst consumers who can–and don't mind–paying more for terrific, often locally-grown cuts.

This trend has even hit Iowa. New pig varieties are being bred with enough “appropriate fat” to enhance flavor without sacrificing leanness. Yet national pork producers aren't headed back to the days of the super-hefty hog; if you want that fatty flavor fix, look elsewhere.

Enter the small farmer, champion of the heritage pork renaissance. The Porkchop Express was tempted to say "pork is pork" and move on, but after doing some digging and dining, we are happy to report that not all pigs are created equal. More strongly, great pork is most certainly worth your food-dollar. For you, good reader, we made the sacrifice and spent months of dedicated gorging in search of a producer who could stand out amongst a strong, competitive field. Our favorite? An Upstate New York operation that goes by the name of Flying Pigs Farm.

So tune in next week for a complete report on Flying Pigs, including plenty of mouth-watering pictures like this:
Til Tuesday,

–J. Slab

The Road to Washington
I should add that the world of pork is shrouded in secrecy, and led me from Iowa to Washington. Mark Boggess and the good folks at the NPB were extremely open, knowledgeable, and generous with their time. But they no longer handle the "Other White Meat" campaign. This was given to the National Pork Producers Council after a USDA-mandated split in 2001. "Betty" at the NPPC refused to divulge why, or discuss whether pork might be considered the only white meat (chicken being closer in spirit to tofu). All of which planted the suspicion that something strange was ahoof. I kept at it, all the way to the USDA. Yet after several time-consuming transfers, I hit a dead-end: a Public Affairs Specialist who effectively sucked my will to live, and left me firmly convinced that some mysteries aren't worth solving. Well played, Betty. Well played.


Tuesday, June 13, 2006

‘cue Ballin'

The World Cup is upon us, good reader; how best to celebrate? Swiss fondue? Korean kimchee? Ukrainian borscht? Brazilian churrasco? Ghanaian kelewele? Persian polow? Australian beer?

The Porkchop Express appreciates any excuse to explore international food, but we decided to kick it American style. Why? Because this weekend marked Manhattan's yearly celebration of delicious regional ‘cue: the 4th Annual Big Apple Barbecue Block Party.

As exciting as this sounds, I still had my doubts. After all, Block Party 1, 2 and 3 were tense, pricey, atrociously organized affairs.

Sure, they sound great: legendary pitmasters, hailing from such exotic locales as Texas, Missouri, Alabama and East 27th Street, descend upon Madison Square Park with smokers and hardwood, shoulders and briskets. But in the past, demand far exceeded supply, space was cramped, and lines were irritatingly long. To make matters worse, you could only purchase food with tickets bought from crowded booths located nowhere near the food. And Ponce de Leon himself would have been hard-pressed to find the "beer garden." All of which made attendance feel more like a chore than Pork Party USA.

But what's past is past, and hope for delicious springs eternal. So we pushed mediocre memories aside (to wit, sitting on a molasses-slow line for a 7$ pig snoot sandwich), and trekked into Manhattan this Sunday to check things out.

Like many New Yorkers, Yankees' Boss George Steinbrenner loves BBQ

Some people get excited by sunny days or a pretty smile. But for yours truly, little revs the engines like the smell of smoked meat. Great ‘cue is a wonderful afrodisaic and mood-enhancer, the belle of the ball and friend to all, the best scene in an action movie, the siren in your favorite song. And as far as I know, it's also pretty damn American.

Or so it seems; the origins are a bit hazy. The word comes from the Hatian barbacoa, a term first used by Gonzalo Fernandez de Oviedo (in 1526) to describe the delicious, pit-roasted meats of the Tierra Firme Indians.

Barbacoas also had another meaning: rough wooden frames, about 3 feet high, used by resourceful 17th century American settlers to both sleep on and prepare meats (over hardwood embers).

"Barbecue" now refers to either the cooker, the food, or the gathering. And no matter the context, it's cause for celebration. What's the appeal? Flavor, sure. But also accessibility, simplicity and tradition. Everyone starts with the same basics (meat, spices, and a heat source), and distinction is honed in the details: the freshness, ingredients and cuts; the marinating and rubbing; the cooking times and techniques; the choice and mix of sauce and sides. Depending on where you hail from, or what your grandparents did, or how close you live to what farm, your BBQ may (and usually does) look entirely different from mine.

Which raises an important issue: when it comes to this stuff, folks get mighty territorial and fussy. Consensus is rare, pride's a-plenty, and everyone seems to have their own take on what works best. The point being that barbecue-appreciation, like barbecue-cooking, is largely a matter of individual taste. So with that qualification in mind, let's check out a few of Sunday's offerings.

Big Bob's pig-on-a-bun

First up is a pulled pork sandwich, courtesy of Big Bob Gibson Bar-B-Q from Decatur, Alabama. Big Bob was a Railroad worker who started smoking pork in 1925. Long story short, folks loved his product, and his weekend hobby soon became a fulltime career.

I Ain't No Joke!

If you were wondering, the guy (above) with the thick rubber gloves and bloody hat/apron combo is Big Bob's humorously not-big grandson. Don't let his size fool you tho; he wielded his machete like a pro. A pro machete maniac, that is. And he put those skills to good use, pulling and chopping 61 pork shoulders this weekend. The Gibsons served their moist, smoky meat on a Martin's potato bun, with a tasty side of mustardy slaw.

Mike Mills' baby back ribs

Next up were great baby back ribs courtesy of Mike "The Legend" Mills of Murphysboro, Illinois. Favored with a delicious rub, and topped with Mike's grandmother's 1902 World's Fair Blue Ribbon "ketchup-vinegar combo" sauce, these were almost good enough to make me forget the syrupy side of mixed-bean surprise.

Mayor John Cowman and Southside CFO Dustin Manhart, holding it down for the Lonestar State

The good folks at Southside Market & BBQ were far more consistent. In fact, their combo plate of succulent smoked brisket, outstanding sausage, and peppery slaw was The Porkchop Express pick-of-the-day. What made Southside's meal stand out? Flavor, pure and simple, the result of sound fundamentals (fresh meat, great spicing, hardwood cooking) and stellar execution.

This formula has served them well for some time. After all, Southside dates back to 1882, when founder William J. Moon started selling beef and pork from the back of a wagon. Moon came from Elgin (hard g), Texas, a spot some 20 miles east of the old Chisholm Trail.

Elgin Hot Guts are Mighty Tasty

The Chisholm was a nexus of Texas foodways in the late-1800s, and Moon's town benefitted. It became–and remains–the epicenter of Lonestar links. As Mayor Cowman put it, "when you think of Elgin you think of sausage." Based on what I tasted, I wont disagree.

Southside's "guts" still use Moon's original 1882 recipe. Cooked rotisserie-style on low heat for about 45 minutes, these are some of the juiciest sausages I have ever had. Smoother than your average kielbasa, with more snap than a New York hot dog, adjectives don't really do justice to this plump, spicy specimen.

Their brisket–cooked for 12+ hours til it's melt-in-your-mouth moist–is nearly as satisfying. Dark burnt ends, dry rub and high quality beef provide all the flavor you need, which may be why self-respecting Texans avoid saucing it up. If you must, however, Southside has a good one: hot and sharp (but not distracting), and refreshingly low in sugar.

If the sheer number of natives gravitating to the ‘cue was any indication, this place is the real deal. In the time I spent talking to Manhart and Cowman (the best Texas names ever??), at least half a dozen folks shared a common sentiment: gratitude that Elgin's finest had hit Manhattan.

#1 NC Pitmaster Ed Mitchell

Ed Mitchell also represents his home state to the fullest. Hailing from Wilson, North Carolina, he shared terrific Eastern NC barbeque with the NY masses: whole hogs slow-cooked over oak and hickory logs, and finished with a vinegar/hot red pepper flake sauce. The result is something uniquely balanced, a rich, smoky meat in league with a sharp, spicy wash.

Checking the Hog...

...and Pulling the Pork

On a more personal note, I was especially grateful to chat with Mr. Mitchell because, during a recent Carolina BBQ tour, I noticed his restaurant had closed. It turns out he was just rallying the wagons for two bigger, bolder ventures: a new New York restaurant (!) and, even more flavorific, a Barbecue Culinary Institute.

Yes, good reader, you heard it hear first: Mitchell's Bar-B-cademy of flavor is on it's way.

Clearly, this guy is a super-genius. His ‘cue training school works on so many levels, I'm not sure where to begin. And really, I don't have to; Mitchell put it best:

"Barbeque is part of our American heritage, and it's going to extinction."

His soon-to-be school is one effort to reverse the trend, a means of preserving techniques and traditions that comprise one of our country's most popular food cultures. And frankly, it's one of the best ideas I've heard in years. A University of Flavor bar none, this institute of slow-and-low promises to be a place where city slickers and country hams alike can meet, greet, and learn how to make amazing eats. It will also provide Mitchell the space to educate folks about quality meats and sustainable agriculture. (One key to his pulled pork is the animals themselves, which he raises and feeds sweet potatoes, peanuts and corn–a mix passed on from his grandfather.)

Talking to Ed brought me full circle, and reminded me of an earlier chat with Mike Mill's daughter, cookbook co-author and business manager Amy. Standing around and watching the crowds–women and men, young and old, hip and square, a rainbow of New Yorkers and tourists from Japan to South America–she labeled barbeque "the most democratic food in the world." Not to get too sappy (or smokey?), but by the end of the day I was starting to come around. Even in trendy, overpriced New York, the barbeque presents an opportunity to mingle and celebrate. It offers a space where folks who might otherwise never meet get together, compete, enjoy and, most importantly, eat. And that, my friend, is a goal in one!

Til Tuesday,

–J. Slab

For the record...
  • The BBQ Party now takes cash and Credit Cards
  • They have special V.I.P.-style Bubba Passes starting at $120 which, as an astute young woman noted, is pretty much contrary to the "barbeque spirit"
  • Another absurdity: the 35$ seminar "Wine for Swine," where Danny Meyer leads a "tasting of top-notch wines expertly paired with world-class ‘cue." No joke. To quote one pitmaster, "all you need with barbeque is beer or Pepsi." Notice he didn't say chardonnay?
Most of these folks sell online...
And you might as well check out...

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Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Veggie Might

Historic times are upon us, good reader!

This past Friday, the first-ever summer salad fashion show was staged at Grand Central Terminal in Manhattan. The name? A brilliant riff on the well-worn phrase “puttin' on the ritz.” Give up? Puttin' on the Spritz!!

This cutting-edge advertising spectacle (for Wishbone Salad Spritzers) paired women dressed as vegetables with “celebrity” host and “fitness” fruitcake Richard Simmons. Which makes total sense, because nothing whets my appetite like Simmons in a leotard and striped short-shorts staving off giant man-eating she-carrots.

Having not actually attended, I'll go out on a limb and assume the novelty wore thin but fast. Still, The Porkchop Express likes to squeeze the most flavor out of every moment, vicarious or otherwise. And this picture did get us thinking: vegetables, eh?

Improbable as it may seem, we have a number of loyal vegetarian readers, and it feels only right to highlight a quality non delicious meat product every so often. Of course, this isn’t as easy as it sounds. After all, it’s grilling season in New York; I just bought a meat grinder; the 4th Annual Big Apple Barbeque Block Party is upon us; and generally speaking, everything goes “better with bacon.” So what to do? Head to the greenmarket, of course!

decisions, decisions!

Greenmarket vendors can really spruce up your culinary day, and the motley assortment of farmers, fishmongers, pork enthusiasts, dairy-folk, and herbologists who congregate at Grand Army Plaza every Saturday morning are no exception. This is especially true of the veggie-folk, whose skills in the timeless art of vegetable arrangement (freshu yasai-arrange) are unrivaled.

These wily farmers–hailing from Suffolk County to the Garden State–are pros. They know their game, and bring produce sexy enough to entice even the most stalwart meat-atarian: busty bunches of Arrugala, spunky sugar-snap peas, stiff spears of asparagus, and ribald pots of tarragon and thyme.

All of these treats exude a hypnotic sense of delicious, especially now in New York, with produce season just kicking into high gear. And to be honest, after long cold months of tubers and apples, nigh anything with a sprig looks exciting. But even amidst our seasonal cornucopia, one item shot to the visual fore: the radish.

Yes, humane eater: much to my delight, radish season is upon New York.

The radish is, sadly, a wholly underrated vegetable. Is there a less-welcomed salad accoutrement? A less popular finger sandwich? A more neglected addition to homemade broth? The radish is the “corner-store goldfish” of the vegetable kingdom, something that might be in your fridge (you haven’t checked lately), rarely gets fed (to anyone), and spreads no joy (just sadness–when you smell one rotting and have to quickly dispose).

The only time I consistently see radishes are in Mexican restaurants, served with a few lime wedges to cleanse the palate and whet the appetite. I think we have much to learn from our neighbors to the south, so The Porkchop Express did a little sleuthing.

Yet the more dirt we dug up about the radish, the stranger its neglect seemed. After all, the cultivated Raphanus sativus is one of our most venerable vegetables, dating back to at least 2780 BC in Egypt. That’s right, curious reader, this round rosy treat is older than Socrates, Jesus, Confucius, and the Great Pyramid of Giza.

The Chinese have enjoyed radishes since the 7th Century BCE, the Japanese since around 1,000 CE. Ancient Greeks offered radishes to the Gods, and rumor has it that Apollo even received a solid gold simulacrum in his temple at Delphi. The Roman poet Horace waxed eloquent on the radish’s role as an appetite stimulant, while his country’s soldiers introduced the root to Germans and Brits. By the 16th Century, the British had developed several varietals, the seeds of which Puritan colonizers carried to the New World. Radishes took kindly to the Massachusetts soil, bringing a bit of Old English flavor to the New England garden.

In America, radishes are associated with round red bulbs but they (like the people who enjoy them) come in all dispositions, shapes, sizes and colors (deep purple, pale green, creamy yellow, black, white). Some are stout while others are lean, oblong or oval. And they range in size from a few centimeters to several feet in length. The National Garden Bureau reports that single radishes weigh anywhere from a dainty near-ounce, to an elephantitis-awkward 70 pounds (about 32 kilos or 5 stone).

Radishes also get around. The long, thick pale white daikon is Japan's most popular pickle. In Oaxaca, Mexico, folks celebrate La Noche de los Rábanos (Night of the Radishes). But the tastiest tale comes from a buddy from Berlin, who waxes eloquent on the Munchner Bier rettich. Big and white and long like a carrot, this Bavarian beer hall staple is cut with a “special super bavarian knifey-thing” so that it can be pulled in a strip 400 meters long. Sprinkled with salt, accompanied with sausage or pretzel, and washed down with a delicious maß of beer (served by buxom beergarden waitresses, no less), the rettich is a centerpiece of south German democracy: young and old, rich and poor, naughty and nice all gather 'round at long tables, swilling liters, pulling radish ribbons, and having a jolly old timenschaffen.

Have no fear, tho. The radish can be enjoyed elsewhere, and with much less preparation: a rinse and a bite. Take these remarkable Greenmarket specimens, big rosey radiant bulbs with hearty greens and opaque centers. The maiden munch is as satisfying as any nonfat food can be: extremely mild, creamy, peppery... I kid you not. Try a few whole, or slice and toss with lemon juice, oil, salt and chives (below). Radishes also go great with drinks, and help cut the fat of grilled meats, making them a logical guest at the summer backyard barbeque.

When purchasing, look for bunches with their tops intact. The root and leaves alike should be firm, with robust color. Avoid anything dull or wilted. And buy lots: they go fast, and keep well in a bowl of water in the fridge, with the tops removed.

So summon courage, heed the wisdom of the ages, and help restore the radish to its historic glory this summer. No matter how you cut it, atsa mighty fine snack!

Til Tuesday,

–J. Slab

Radish Facts
  • Members of the Brassicaceae or Cruciferae (mustard) family, which includes everything from cabbage to horseradish
  • From the Latin radicem or radix
  • Can be pickled, made into puddings, salads, soups, sandwiches
  • Easy to grow. Common varieties mature in under a month, twice a year
  • 94% water
  • 3-ounce radishes are only 20 calories, and they have potassium levels on par with Mr. Fatty Banana

Special Thanks
  • To Ruth and the National Garden Bureau, for their entertaining and informative Radish Fact Sheet. The NGB is a non-profit group that educates folks on the many benefits of home gardening. They also dubbed 1996 Year of Radish, thereby ensuring a place in the heart of The Porkchop Express.