American Table: A pair of ways to celebrate the humble and tangy radish
I don’t remember when I had radishes with unsalted butter and coarse salt for the first time, but I know that it was in France. And, it was the oblong red-to-fushia, white-tipped French Breakfast radish that I fell in love with. This often photographed radish is what I think of when I think of French open-air markets. I myself have taken more photos of the radishes in the market than I can count. So, I am thrilled that you can now find them in the United States. If you have a home garden, you can also grow them.
I don’t have a vegetable garden, but I belong to a CSA (community supported agriculture) which essentially means that I get a weekly share of the local farm’s vegetables. So, imagine my delight when my first box contained baby French breakfast radishes. Last summer, they did not have these radishes, so I was doubly excited. I was so thrilled to see the radishes that I ignored everything else in my CSA box and promptly made a “tartine.” A tartine is not a complicated dish. It is simply the French name for open-faced sandwich. Mine was composed solely of the radishes, unsalted butter and my favorite naturally coarse French salt, fleur de sel (flower of salt).
The first time that I experienced the luscious combination of butter, radish and salt was on a slice of the famous brown sourdough bread from Poilane. The toothsome and rustic bread with a sour tang and chewy crust was the perfect canvas for the toppings. The crunchy, slightly hot and spicy radishes tamed by the sweet butter and rounded out by the crystals of pure salt from the fleur de sel was one of the great food moments of my life and left a lasting impression. It is one of those classic food pairings where the whole is much greater than the sum of the parts.
You can make a tartine with the more easily available globe radishes or the gorgeous watermelon radish, or a combination of your favorite radishes. You can also serve the radishes with the same garnishes, but without the bread as a nibble with drinks. Truth be told, I do this much more frequently because the tartine also relies on a really nice rustic loaf of bread and I don’t always have that on hand. But I always have good quality unsalted butter and fleur de sel, so this is a pretty, tasty, easy and relatively healthy pre-dinner snack.
To serve, I place room temperature butter in a pretty crock, a tablespoon of fleur de sel in a small salt cellar or small bowl and serve the radishes ice cold in a third bowl. If using breakfast radishes, clean and trim them, leaving a bit of the green tops on to act like a handle. Soak in ice water to crisp up before serving. To eat them, dip the radishes in the soft butter and fleur de sel just before consuming and watch the bowl of radishes disappear! If you haven’t had this remarkable simple treat before, prepare to become addicted.
If using globe radishes, in addition to trimming the tops as you did for the breakfast radishes, cut a slit into the four sides of the radish with a paring knife. Soak them in ice water for about 30 minutes to crisp up and bloom a bit before serving. You can also simply cut an “X” in the bottom of the radish to hold the butter and salt. Smear with butter first and then dip into the salt. Pop into your mouth and enjoy!
OPEN-FACED RADISH TARTINE
Serving: 1 (but can be multiplied to make as many as you like)
Start to finish: 40 minutes
1 thick slice of rustic bread
1 tablespoon unsalted high-quality European-style butter
3-4 radishes, cleaned and sliced thin, but not too thin.
Fleur de sel or other coarse sea salt
Toast a slice of rustic bread and let cool on the rack of the toaster so that it won’t steam on itself. You want it to cool so that it will be crunchy but not melt the butter. Once cool, spread the butter and layer the sliced radishes over the whole surface. If you want the radishes to be at maximum crunchiness, soak in ice water for about 30 minutes before making the tartine. You can add fresh herbs to the butter if you like, but I prefer the simplicity of the butter, salt and radishes.
Just before eating, sprinkle Fleur de sel on top and enjoy. I do this just before I eat the tartine because I want the salt to be crunchy and I don’t want to give it time to pull the moisture from the radishes.
SWEET BUTTER AND SALT
Servings: 4 Start to finish: 40 minutes
4 tablespoons unsalted “sweet” European-butter, room temperature
1 tablespoon Fleur de sel or other coarse sea salt
10-12 cleaned and trimmed radishes.
Place room temperature butter in a pretty crock, the fleur de sel in a small salt cellar or small bowl and serve the radishes ice cold in a third bowl. If using breakfast radishes, clean and trim them, leaving a bit of the green tops on to act like a handle. Soak in ice water to crisp up before serving. Dip the radishes in the soft butter and fleur de sel.
If using globe radishes, trim the tops, leaving a little of the greenery for looks and to use as a handle. Cut a slit into four sides of the radish with a paring knife, and soak them in ice water for about 30 minutes before serving. You can also simply cut an “X” in the bottom of the radish to hold the butter and salt. Smear with butter first and then dip into the salt.
Elizabeth Karmel is a barbecue and Southern foods expert. She is the chef and pit master at online retailer CarolinaCueToGo.com and the author of three books, including “Taming the Flame.”