On a recent sweltering Sunday morning, I prowled the farmers' market in downtown Baltimore looking for something interesting to take home and fix for lunch. There were a lot of flowers and radishes for sale. While I know you can eat flowers - I once had a terrific salad flecked with nasturtiums at Chez Panisse in Berkeley, Calif. - I leaned toward the radishes.
As someone who has grown radishes, I have come to believe that they are a lot like children. When they arrive, you are filled with joy. But you quickly learn that their appeal peaks in their young and tender stage.
The longer radishes hang around, the more unruly they become. In the spring and early summer, radishes have flavor that is crisp and satisfying. A few weeks later, however, the strong summer heat turns them tough, hot and woody.
Fostering the good growth of radishes requires a steely disposition. The seedlings have to be given room to grow. That means the gardener must thin the crop, yanking up some of the very seedlings he or she has nurtured for weeks. You have to have a hard heart to yank what you planted and I confess that, when it comes to thinning, I am a softy.
I couldn't bring myself to cull the radishes that I grew in my garden about a year ago. As a result, they ended up about as densely packed as a light rail train after an Orioles game. Their texture was chewy, somewhat similar to that of a No. 2 pencil. Their flavor was fiery. Their aroma? Again, the packed light rail train car comes to mind.
So when I recently went hunting for radishes at the market, I initially sought out the svelte ones. Some long, lean, stylish radishes caught my eye. These, of course, would be French, the French Breakfast radish to be exact.
The French, it turns out, don't eat these radishes at breakfast with coffee and a croissant. Instead, they wait until 10 o'clock in the morning to savor them with a baguette and a glass of red wine. The French seem to eat everything with a glass of red wine.
In addition to the French Breakfast, I also bought some Globe radishes. These are round, Botticelli-shaped beauties.
At home, I considered eating the radishes in my usual way. That would be sprinkling them with a little sea salt, then munching them raw while sipping a cold beer, a pilsener. But it was too early, in my book, for a beer, at least on Sunday.
I poked through cookbooks, looking for radish recipes. I tried two. One, from The Gourmet Cookbook, called for braising the radishes in a mixture of water, raspberry vinegar, sugar, salt and butter. I didn't like the results. The cooked radishes tasted pickled.
I had a better outcome with a radish-sandwich recipe that I found in Deborah Madison's Local Flavors. It called for mixing finely chopped radishes, butter, lemon zest, a pinch of salt with - get this - some chopped up radish leaves. Before I put the radish leaves in the mixture, I ran my fingers over them. They felt like sandpaper, the high-grit type. This sandpaper-leaf idea did not seem very promising, but I followed the recipe anyway. Sure enough, when the radish leaves were chopped into submission, they gave the butter a bright color and a tart bite.
I smeared some of the radish butter on a slice of baguette that I had also bought that morning at the market. I am a big fan of baguette and butter, and this mixture was winning.
The bits of chopped radish and the radish leaves gave the butter some tartness. The lemon zest gave it tang. The pieces of crusty bread, covered with the vegetable-dotted butter, looked like a miniature garden. I ate four slices.
It was enough to make me reconsider cultivating radishes. Maybe next year, I told myself, I will be brave enough to grow radishes the right way, young and thin.
See Rob Kasper each Wednesday on ABC2/WMAR-TV's News at Noon.
Radish Butter for Radish Sandwiches
Makes 1/2 cup
6 radishes (French Breakfast or a mixture of red, purple and pink radishes)
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 teaspoon finely grated lemon zest
sea salt to taste
Wash and trim the radishes. If the leaves are tender and fresh, set a dozen or so aside, stems removed. Slice the radishes into rounds, then crosswise into narrow strips. Each should be tipped with color.
Chop the leaves; you should have about 1/2 cup. Mix the butter and lemon zest until the mixture is soft, then stir in chopped radishes, leaves and salt. Spread on slices of crusty baguette and serve.
From "Local Flavors," by Deborah Madison
Per tablespoon: 51 calories, 0 grams protein, 6 grams fat, 4 grams saturated fat, 0 grams carbohydrate, 0 grams fiber, 15 milligrams cholesterol, 2 milligrams sodium