Friday, December 9, 2011

Sichuan's gorgeous radish pickles

Now that the Christmas season is upon us, I have been devising an Asian-American feast for Zester Daily that will be published as a series over the next couple of weeks. Some of the sides, though, will be linked to here so that I don't have to give them short shrift, including these pickles, a super easy sweet potato recipe from Shanxi, the savory fava bean pâté from Shanghai, and my favorite sesame rolls from Sichuan. 

Add to this a turkey that is flavored with the deep soy marinades of northern China, a lotus-wrapped risotto from Guangdong, and even a sorbet inspired by the island province of Hainan, and you have many of China's most enticing cuisines represented on one groaning table.

Today we'll look at some truly effortless pickles which are so good that people clamor for the leftovers. Very different from the spiced peaches, sweet gherkins, and watermelon pickles that my grandmother used to serve with our family feasts, the basic idea of combining sweet and tart to combat and complement rich flavors seems to stretch across all sorts of cultures and food traditions. For example what would a pastrami on rye be without a kosher dill? 

The Chinese too often like gently tart pickles to accompany roasted poultry dishes, and here is a traditional version from the central Chinese province of Sichuan that works particularly well for a holiday dinner. It is extremely easy to make, can prepared days in advance, and tastes wonderful even in the next day’s turkey sandwiches. 

An Asian radish trio
I have used some watermelon radishes as shown in the photos here, which ended up supplying a beautiful red hue to the pickle and made it look even more Christmassy than usual. (Shown in the picture to the right, starting from the upper left and going clockwise, is a green Chinese, Korean, and watermelon radish.)

But go with whatever mild Asian radishes you have in your area. Icicle radishes (also known as daikon) and even regular little Western radishes can be used in a pinch, and they look lovely too with their pink rims and white centers.

One delicious variety that you should look out for is that football-shaped Korean radish with a green top and white body. These radishes are so mild that I often peel and slice them up to munch on like apples. Very sweet and not in the least hot or gassy, these are a true cold weather treat!

Icicle radish pickles 
Chuanshi pao luobo 川式泡蘿蔔   
That same trio sliced
Makes 1 quart

4 pounds Chinese, Korean, or Western radishes, trimmed
1 tablespoon sea salt
2¼ cups pale-colored rice vinegar
1½ cup sugar
1½ cup water
5 to 10 small fresh chilies, or to taste
2 tablespoons sliced ginger

1. Start this recipe anywhere up to 4 days before you wish to serve it. Peel the Chinese or Korean radishes and halve them before slicing each half into thin slices with a knife or mandoline slicer. If you are using small Western radishes, just trim off the rootlets and leaves before slicing them. Place the sliced radishes in a large colander, set it on a large plate and toss the radishes with the salt. Let the radishes sweat for 1 or 2 hours to remove most of their moisture.
Prepare a spicy-sweet vinegar

2. While the radishes are sweating, mix the vinegar, sugar, water, chilies, and ginger together in a medium, non-reactive saucepan and bring the pickling solution to a boil. Reduce the heat to a simmer and gently cook for about 20 minutes; taste and adjust the seasoning. Remove the pan from the stove and let the pickling solution come to room temperature.

3. Grab small handfuls of the radishes and gently squeeze out most of the moisture, but don’t rinse them. Just place the squeezed radishes in a 1-quart bowl, pour the pickling solution over them, and refrigerate covered for up to 4 days. Drain however much of the pickles you wish to use and serve them chilled.