I’ve been convinced for a long time now that really good cooking basically comes down to two things: technique and balance. The first requires some skill but can be learned by most people with enough practice, practice, practice. The second is more subtle and elusive. Yes, there are some basic rules of thumb can be learned by the book—and developed by experience. But past a certain point, it becomes a matter of intuition, something that you develop a feel for, or not.
This intuitive feeling for “what works” may be the thing that separates an average cook from a superlative one. Understanding just how much to season, for example, is probably the single most important skill a cook can have. A perfectly seasoned dish is surprisingly rare because, at the end of the day, you can’t learn it from books or cooking lessons. You just need to ‘know’. In the same way, knowing what sauce or other condiment will best complement a particular pasta shape—key to being a good Italian cook—is something that can only be partially conveyed through the few rules of thumb that exist. You either “get it” or you don’t.
Balance is often a matter of contrasting flavors and textures, and nothing illustrates this principle better than this simple appetizer: radishes—crisp, astringent, sharp—perfectly set off by butter—soft, smooth, creamy—and both exalted by just a light sprinkling of salt. Get the balance right and you will have achieved a kind of culinary nirvana.
The ‘recipe‘ is simple enough: Take the best and freshest radishes you can find, the kind that come with their stems and leaves still attached. Trim them of their root ends and all but a few millimeters of their stems, rinse them gently but thoroughly of any grit and let them air-dry in a colander.
Meanwhile, take your butter out of the fridge and let it come to room temperature. Like cheese, butter is at its best served this way. Besides returning to its naturally soft and creamy texture, you’ll be amazed at just how much taste good butter actually has. As for your radishes, try to find the best butter you can; “European style” cultured butter will have much more flavor than ‘sweet’ butter.
Now serve the radishes on a plate, split in half vertically so a bit of stem clings to each half. Accompany the radishes with the butter, served in a small bowl or butter ‘bell’. Along side, serve a small bowl of best-quality sea salt so you can use your hands to pinch as much as you need. (A salt shaker is a crude instrument and in cases like this, when you need just a few grains of salt, you will almost without a doubt wind up over-salting.)
Each diner takes a half radish by its stem, smears it with some butter and sprinkles over just a few grains of salt with their fingers.
One of the charms of this dish is the way you can vary it by using different varieties of radish, and different kinds of butter and salt. The endless varieties of ‘gourmet’ salts sometimes seems a bit superfluous to me, but you can see the point when salt is used in a dish like this.
Although a cold dish of raw ingredients, I find this appetizer as attractive in the cool weather months as at any time of year. And radishes with butter and salt go equally well with a medium-bodied white wine, a rosé or a light red like Pinot Noir.