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EATING RADISHES AND BUTTER

It’s cool and rainy and we walk miles along the East River. The water is gray today and moving fast. So are we, breathing in the salt air and happy that we live on an island.

On the way home, we run into friends and invite them over for an early supper. We stop for bottles of something white, dry, and cold, and then for narrow baguettes, their brittle crust kept dry underneath someone’s slicker. The rain falls harder, and we run the last block like children.

I had gone crazy for radishes this week at the Greenmarket. Of various sizes and shapes, their colors range from the palest of pinks and what is surely violet to the magenta-fade-to-white that holds its own against any ikat, and the lustrous dark red more commonly seen on peonies. I couldn’t resist: Radishes are at their best this time of year, and again in the fall. They grow quickly in cool weather, which intensifies their snap, savor, and juicy tenderness, and I am reminded of another friend, equally intense, who was inspired enough to paint them.

These radishes are so fresh they need nothing more than a rinse. I nip off the roots, trim the leaves*, and cut the larger radishes in half. No need to fuss: I heap them on a platter with the bread, cut into slices, and ramekins of sweet butter and salt. If we were sitting at a café in Paris, we would be presented with fleur de sel, which would be lovely, but what I really want now are big, crisp, airy flakes of Maldon, which remind me of other rivers, far away in Essex, England, and smaller, flintier grains of black lava salt—equally dramatic and courtesy of Sam’s sister, who bolts off to Hawaii every chance she gets.

All table radishes—as well as large, fleshy daikons and Chinese radishes, with their kaleidoscopic interiors—belong to just one species (Raphanus sativus) of the vast Brassicaceae family. When you taste several different permutations at the same time, it is easy to appreciate the differences in flavor. The paler ones before us are beautifully mild. The elongated magenta-and-white French Breakfasts are a bit spicier, but still sweet enough to belong on a tray with coffee cups and croissant crumbs.

The four of us decide, in fact, while carefully divvying up the last of the wine, that it is high time to bring back radishes—which are rich in vitamins and minerals—as a power breakfast. A peek into William Woys Weaver’s 100 Vegetables and Where They Came From—which is both masterful and utterly charming—reveals that, in the 18th century, radishes were considered a great antidote for the common cold, “powerful fortifiers of digestion,” and a remedy for kidney stones.

My husband crunches into a crimson orb. “These would be wonderful on dandelion greens,” he says, a little wistfully. “With anchovy dressing.” He gives me a meaningful glance. “Whatever’s on the stovetop smells hot.”

Ah, so it is. Nothing fancy, just lentil soup pulled from our postage-stamp freezer, thawed lickety-split, and brought to a simmer. Quick—open another bottle of wine, red this time, slice more bread, and we are good to go.

By the time we finish up with fresh oranges and chocolate, it is nighttime. The rain is still steadily falling, making the dark street gleam. Seven floors up, we watch our friends leave the building. Holding hands, they run down the sidewalk like children.

Illustration by Vicky Cameron

*Young, tender, good-for-you radish leaves are wonderful in a green salad, stir-fried with ginger and soy sauce, or puréed into a soup with leeks, potatoes, and a little cream.

 

Comments

Comment from Robin
Time May 23, 2011 at 9:46 pm

What a lovely story! It makes me miss New York something fierce.

Though I have yet to fall in love with actually eating them, radishes are so gorgeous I can never resist bringing them home from the market. Even with good butter and salt they don’t send me over the moon. Now that I know they’re full of good stuff, maybe I’ll be inspired to crunch through them at breakfast.

Comment from Carli Ratcliff
Time May 24, 2011 at 4:05 am

A great story Jane, I love breakfast radishes (radis roses) especially, as you say so beautiful in their fading colour. They are just arriving at the markets again here in Sydney now that the temperature is dropping. I made a habit of making pesto from radish leaves last winter, with pistachios rather than pine nuts, inspired by a recipe of Clotilde’s at Chocolate and Zucchini http://chocolateandzucchini.com/archives/2009/05/radish_leaf_pesto.php, and also roasting them.

Comment from admin
Time May 24, 2011 at 5:58 am

Pesto made with radish leaves and pistachios sounds wonderful! Can’t wait to try.

Comment from Luisa
Time May 29, 2011 at 10:56 am

Your writing transports me. I love your blog.

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