Tradition: Sourdough with Butter, Watermelon Radish, and Salt

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

-As tasty as they are pretty to look at.-

"Your mom will eat slightly spicy food right?" I probably should have asked before I ground up the Tien Tsin chili pepper, a Chinese pepper known for its incindiary flavor. One is enough to add piquancy to any dish along with a slap of cheek-blushing fire. "I'm just using one of the Chinese peppers for the whole pot so it shouldn't be too bad." Assuming, of course, that no one counted the teaspoon of crushed Sichuan peppercorns I added, which, really, aren't even spicy-hot as they are tingly-hot.

"Yeah," BF called out, "she should be fine."

BF's mother is a somewhat picky eater discretionary consumer in alimentary situations, so I was doing my best to address her likes and dislikes accordingly. Cooking for in-laws can be somewhat stressful as any of you who have can understand.

Of course, it wasn't really an issue as I didn't mind cooking around peoples preferences. When cooking for my own mother I've learned to avoid certain dishes. Last Christmas when I cooked for the whole family for Christmas Eve, giving my mom her first Christmas Eve dinner off in thirty-five years, I learned of her total disinclination and disgust towards butternut squash.

-These radishes are in season in Winter and on through early Spring.-

"What do you mean you don't like butternut squash?" I said incredulously. In my entire memory I couldn't recall ever hearing my mother say she disliked any particular food.

"I mean, I don't like it," she turned her head towards me as she sat on the couch and made a face.

"Since when?"

"Since ever. Why don't you think I ever made it for you guys when you were kids? I hate squash," she made a little shudder at the thought of it.

I thought back to my childhood and realized it was true. Not once could I recall a single instance she served us any sort of Winter squash. Summer squash and spaghetti squash steamed to a grey, immoral, nearly unconscionable mess, sure, plenty of times. It was why still to this day I never eat them. Never Winter squash though, and as an adult I ate those all the time. Apparently, my love of them was proof enough to the fact that she never did cook it, otherwise I would be just as terrified of pumpkin and butternut as I am of zucchini today.

"Well, I've bought it and already cut it up. I'm making it and your trying it." Good lord, I thought to myself, I'm turning into my parents with my parents. I decided to ignore the meta-psychological implications and continued to chop up the butternut. "You just have to try a bite."

"I won't like it," mom said and she turned back to her magazine.

"You haven't had it the way I make it. It's roasted in brown sugar and butter. You just have to try one bite. If you don't like it you don't have to eat it." I rolled my eyes and continued to work.

"Fiiiinnneee." she moaned. I could hear her sigh.

I brought my mind back to the present and added some chopped scallions to the slow cooker before popping the top on and setting it for 10 hours. "I'm sure your mom will like it," I said to BF, but also to myself.

-Even the pickiest eaters will love this recipe and these radishes.-

I looked at the rump sitting in the crock pot. It wasn't the family flank steak recipe, but, then again, this wasn't a usual holiday. This would actually be my first Christmas without any of my family. Due to work at the bakery, a profession that doesn't really take holidays into consideration except that you might get more hours than normal, I wasn't going to be able to make the trip to Southern California. The whole situation was a bit depressing. Sure, I had had Christmases away from most of my family where just my mother or brother came up to visit, but never had I actually been without a single person from my side of the family. It was a break in tradition for me.

Instead, I would be spending it with BF's family; absolutely lovely people whom I adore and who would be arriving in just a few hours. BF and I had insisted that we prepare Christmas Eve dinner. Christmas Eve dinner was the biggest holiday event for my family, but for BF's family it wasn't so. So this season would be a mix of old and new for everyone. For me, a big family get-together without my side of the family, and for them a big get-together on a night usually spent inconsequentially.

Normally, Christmas Eve dinner is defined by my Grandmother's recipe for flank steak. When she passed it became my mother's job to prepare it, and the last few years the task was passed down to me. Unfortunately, the recipe really requires a barbecue, something that neither BF nor I have. Hence, the slow-cooked, Sichuan-spiced rump roast.

At this point, I figured, one might as well throw out tradition all together and go crazy. For some, the idea of doing away for tradition, even for just one season, is simply inconceivable. Traditions, especially holidays ones, can only be experienced one time a year. They're something we look forward to. They embody memories and family history, and we cherish the significance they posses. Traditions are part of what define who we are.

-It's not so much about breaking traditions as it is about starting new ones.-

But let's be real for a minute. Really, will one year without dad's famous mashed potatoes really kill us all? One Thanksgiving without a turkey? "But Garrett," you may cry, "Thanksgiving is the only time of year we have turkey!"

Well, why is that? Turkey is delicious any time of year. Dad can always make mashed potatoes tomorrow. Why not make those special dishes a different night or different season of the year? Why relegate them to just one meal? It might seem odd, even radical to consider the act of breaking with tradition, but it offers that chance to create new traditions. New foods and activities may become family canon or they may become canon fodder, but who knows until you try?

This Christmas Eve dinner there was no flank steak. No Marian's green bean casserole. No salads made at the last minute or pumpkin pie picked up from the store. No family from Southern California coming up to visit.

Instead, Christmas Eve dinner was rump roast slow-cooked in Sichuan spices, Brussels sprouts sauteed in duck fat, cranberry sauce with vanilla and tangerine, and potatoes au gratin. The meal would be finished with an upside-down cranberry walnut cake flavored with orange bitters and a chocolate-toffee cheesecake. Not just a break in culinary tradition for everyone at the table, but a total shattering of it. Yet once everyone started eating there wasn't a single complaint to be heard.

The meal began, however, with something incredibly simple and flavorful: slices of freshly baked sourdough bread, buttered and adorned with wafer-thin slivers of appropriately named watermelon radishes, topped with a small flurry of Fleur de Sel.

-These are also great in salads, sandwiches, and on a cheese plate with a creamy Brie.-

It's a simple preparation that has a huge following in France and parts of Canada, but exists in near total obscurity in the United States. The salt and butter sooth the raking flavors of the radish and make for an outstandingly flavorful snack. Watermelon radishes, an heirloom variety that can be found at nearly any Farmer's Market in the U.S. and some specialty grocery stores, has a sweeter snap to it than most other varieties of radish and can be eaten raw without any hesitation. When sliced open its colors are simply breathtaking. The obvious name, watermelon radish, is well-deserved for both appearance and flavor.

There is no real recipe to this dish; more of just a method. You can use any bread, but I find sourdough to best match the bitter flavor of the radish. Any variety of radish is fine (except, perhaps, black radish) as the harsh, sulfuric flavors will be mellowed by the salt and butter.

I encourage you to use this recipes the next time tradition calls. Try something new. Try anything new.

Sourdough with Butter and Watermelon Radish

Spread some unsalted butter at room temperature over slices of sourdough bread. Using a mandoline or a very sharp knife, thinly slice a watermelon radish and lay on top of the bread. Sprinkle with a good quality salt like Fleur de Sel or Sel Gris and serve.


  1. Please share info on where to find those beautiful watermelon radishes in Sacramento. I'd love to try them.

  2. NeCole: Farmer's Market under the freeway, at a stall across from where bread is sold. I have also seen these at Farmer's Markets in Ojai and Kansas City.

  3. I had never heard of a watermelon radish until Thanksgiving when I had an interesting experience. Needed turnips for a turnip gratin and had no luck finding nice ones at Whole Foods. My daughter and I went to Fresh Market(here in Marietta, GA) and found some beautiful ones--looked a little different but they were labeled turnips. Imagine my surprise when slicing for the gratin--my daughter said, "they look like watermelons", and I had no idea what they were. Tasted like a radish to me. I posted a question on food52 and someone was able to identify my watermelon radishes. If I ever find them again, I will give this a try!

  4. I love that watermelon radish, I don't know I can find them here in Houston. TX.

  5. Lovely pictures, so lovely that if I find the radishes I will try them, even though I don't like... I get the point. Any chance of more recipes from the New Christmas Eve dinner? Cheesecake, in particular? Cranberry sauce as well?

  6. Hooray for new traditions! I usually get around the grumpiness that ensues when I take a family favorite off the menu by promising to make it for said crankypants at a later date. Who can resist an entire dish of scalloped potatoes made especially for them?

  7. Did your mother like the squash?

  8. they are soooo pretty! the color is unreal!

  9. Radishes with butter and salt is one of the simplest yet tastiest treats. And with your addition of the watermelon radishes it is also one of the most beautiful!

  10. Garrett, what a great post! And beautiful pictures. Are you willing to share the other recipes from your Christmas Eve dinner? In particular, that roast sounds just amazing, and the desserts too. Thanks! I always enjoy reading your blog.

  11. What a beautiful vegetable. I want to cut some up just so I can stare at it and take some pictures.

  12. My family won't eat winter squashes either. It kills me, as I am a huge butternut/acorn squash fan. BUT my husband loves radishes and I've always hated them. I've only ever had the nasty little red ringed salad bar ones, so maybe if I try a different variety with this presentation I'll broaden my own horizons a bit. Great post as always Garrett!

  13. Never heard of seen watermelon radish till now. They're so beautiful.
    Best wishes for a happy, prosperous and peaceful new year.

  14. I've lived all over Europe and am in Sydney now... I've never EVER seen such gorgeous radishes... Lucky duck! The photography is stunning too.

  15. I also don't mind cooking around other people's preferences. But cooking for MY inlaws, never again. They will only eat roast beef, roast turkey or hamburgers for meat, the only veggies are carrots, peas, potatoes & iceberg lettuce. No rice, no fruit, no cream.

    I love that you try out new traditions, we love to, some we keep, some are just for the day :) Oh, and turkey, is for anytime we have the time.

  16. thanks for sharing the recipe
    I'll try to make it.this looks good and the ingredients are also easily available and this food sounds Healthier.

  17. What a beautiful post. I love radishes, although they don't love me... It's gross, so I'll just leave it at that. I have been eating and serving radishes this way for a while and everytime I do, my guests are like WOW! Traditions are good, making new one's w/new loved one's is good too. I hope your holiday's were exceptional.

  18. Those are the most photogenic radishes ever! I tried this snack a few months back after reading about it in A Homemade Life. It is delicious and definitely make sure you have good butter,it makes al the difference.The peppery and the smoothness if the butter,yum!

  19. I've never heard of watermelon radish before. The photos are stunning! Beautiful contrast of colours.
    As I wait for my sourdough to bake this morning, I think it could use a little dressing up with the radishes.

  20. i will try to make some of this recipe.
    thanks for sharing ,great work and great compilation

  21. I so want these radishes. I'm pretty sure I can't find themhere in my little bitty town. I will find them though.... now that I know they exist. Thanks for opening my eyes!

  22. I looked on Amazon for these radishes and found that they have seeds for them! Just search for watermelon radish. Also, they have strange looking black sea man tomato seeds. Here is the url if it works here.

  23. they are soooo pretty! the color is unreal!


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