When I was just out of college, traveling through France, a handful of fresh market radishes, peasant bread, sweet butter and coarse salt made a fine lunch. I’ve never forgotten those flavors as my friends and I sat near the fountain in the Luxembourg Garden, where old men played chess and boys nudged sail boats with stick.
Radishes are the darlings of spring, the first crop to appear and the easiest to grow. Planted from seeds, they’ll be ready to pick in just two weeks. And you can eat the whole vegetable. Those young leaves are delicious in salads and as a garnish to soups; the flowers pretty up any plate; leaves of mature plants make a fine addition to sautés and stir-fries.
Our local growers at the farmers markets sell a world of radishes: Thin, finger-sized French Breakfast radishes are delicate and crisp, Cincinnati Market radishes are also slender and scarlet within, and lovely, multicolored Easter egg radishes come in shades of blush, cream and bright red with vibrant green crinkled tops.
When shopping for radishes, it’s best to avoid those that are limp, soft or cracked. Store radishes in a plastic bag or container in the refrigerator to retain their moisture. If you’re not going to use the green tops, snip them off and discard, as they get limp and draw moisture from the root.
With their vibrant colors, snappy texture and flavor, radishes are fabulous raw, the easiest appetizer ever. The older and bigger the radish, the spicier it tends to be. To tame that heat, peel the vegetable; much of the kick is delivered through the skin. Serve radishes with your favorite dip or a pat of sweet butter and a little coarse salt. Better yet, make radish butter by whizzing equal parts chopped red radishes and butter together in a food processor fitted with a steel blade. This is great on plain crackers, crusty bread, or to garnish grilled chicken or fish.
A slaw of shaved radishes and carrots tossed in sweet vinaigrette makes a wonderful picnic salad. Likewise, sliced radishes and cucumbers dressed with mint are a perfect match to grilled lamb or barbecued ribs.
When radishes are sauteed and stir-fried, they lose some of their color and their bite is subdued. They taste like sweet little turnips. Irish cooks simmer radishes in with their homey potato soups and they’ll add chopped radish greens toward the end of cooking for color and spice.
The open-faced sandwiches shown in the photo are a favorite of photographer and intrepid gardener Mette Nielsen. Here are some other ideas to showcase our first crops, as we root for spring.
• Bruschetta spread with Boursin cheese and sliced radishes.
• Crostini spread with cream cheese and sliced radishes.
• Pita bread stuffed with hummus and sliced radishes.
Open Faced Radish Sandwiches With Fresh Butter
Note: Included is the process for making fresh, sweet butter. To freshen the radishes before slicing, give them a good dunk in ice water.
• 3 to 4 tbsp. unsalted butter (see below)
• 2 slices dense whole-wheat bread or crusty baguette
• 1 lb. common red radishes or Easter egg variety, rinsed, ends removed, thinly sliced
• 1 to 2 tsp. coarse salt, to taste
Spread the bread with a very thick layer of butter. Layer the radishes over the butter. Sprinkle with salt to taste. (Use a light hand; you don’t want to overwhelm the flavors.)
To make your own butter: Fill a large bowl with ice water. Pour a pint of room-temperature heavy cream into a different mixing bowl. Begin whipping the cream, first on low speed, then raise the speed to medium, and then whip on high speed. The cream will form stiff peaks, then begin to break, then clump and cling to the beater. Keep whipping to separate the butterfat from the liquid. Once the butter has solidified, pour off the liquid (the buttermilk) and save for baking. Scoop out the butter and shape into a round ball and rinse well with cold water. Press into a small crock to remove the remaining buttermilk.
Beth Dooley is the author of “In Winter’s Kitchen.” Find her at bethdooleyskitchen.com.