Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Building a Mystery

There are some foods that I have (shockingly) never even come close to consuming. For a while, beets were the reigning champion of the "foods I wouldn't touch with a 10-foot pole" competition, but before that there was an interesting love/hate relationship with radishes. For years they appeared atop the side-salads of chain restaurants during my childhood in the eighties. There they always were: thin, crispy white disks with a brilliant fuchsia border, perched somewhere between a wedge of iceberg lettuce and a patch of shredded carrots. Radishes had always struck me as the Paris Hilton of the side-salad world, shiny and pink, and leaving everyone guessing as to why it was invited to the party. It certainly wasn't for their flavor, which is actually quite bland at first, and then progresses to a spicy bite, but is still somewhat unremarkable.

It'd be years before I actually encountered radishes to a serious degree again, but eventually, during a long weekend spent in Paris (while fleeing the culinary disasters of London) I came face to face with radishes once again. Although the hostel I stayed in was decrepit, lacking in heat and had one rickety wooden shower for 60 people (ew!), it made up for all it lacked with it's breakfast. Every morning we had a traditional French morning meal, complete with warm baguettes, rich french butter, nutella, hot chocolate, and espresso. And over in a corner, much to my surprise, was a bowl of radishes, a small knife, and a cutting board. I was still asking myself what part they played in breakfast when one of the young men from the front desk (obviously on his first break in several hours) took one out of the bowl and thinly sliced it. Then, he took a big dollop of butter and put in on a plate in addition to a big pinch of sea salt alongside the sliced radishes.

Slowly, and with great care, he began to butter a radish the way you would a piece of toast. Then he sprinkled it with a pinch of salt and tossed it in his mouth. This went on until all of the radish slices were gone, and he had nothing left to do but drink an espresso and get back to work. I was bewildered, as were my travel companions. Radishes for breakfast? I was stumped and surprised, not to mention shocked that of all people, those with such a rich culinary history as the French would eat something as random as radishes for breakfast. It wasn't until recently, following a summer dominated by trips to the greenmarket, that I was reminded of this new use for radishes. Radishes are found in abundance, particularly now, and in varying types, including French breakfast radishes.

So, finally it was time to find out what was so great about radishes, and on Saturday I decided to have a late breakfast of radishes with French butter and sea salt. It turned out to be pretty tasty, and I would think, a great starter dish if you're hosting a brunch. After some research early on in the summer I learned that this dish was once actually quite common in the French countryside, and part of a dying tradition of the French breakfast. So now I'm no longer wondering what radishes are good for, but I am wondering if there are any other preparations other than this or using them as a topping for salads. If anyone out there has any suggestions, I'd love to hear them!

French Breakfast Radishes

3-4 radishes, thinly sliced
3 Tbsp good unsalted butter
2 Tbsp coarse ground sea salt (the best you can find)

Arrange radishes on a platter with butter and salt in their own bowls. Have each guest butter a radish slice and top it with a pinch of butter. Enjoy!

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