Lately, Michael and I have been dining very simply on the home front. After feeding a bunch of hungry folks out on the meadows of Keeneland for two outdoor concerts featuring Tiempo Libre with the Lexington Philharmonic, we really craved quiet time at home and in our kitchen. Sliced melons with cottage cheese and marinated tomatoes with cucumbers provided cool calm answers for quiet kitchen time.
Last night, we were ready to fire up the burners. Michael prepared his fabulous salmon cakes with hollandaise. His gentle deft hand with them always produces moist cakes with crackling exteriors. I was excited to sit back and let him work his magic while I whipped up a side dish to accompany them. Yesterday morning, I stopped by the market to pick up a few tomatoes. I left with a couple of heirloom black brandywine tomatoes, baby leeks, and a bag of very ugly early season small watermelon radishes. Aside from a couple of ears of corn, a can of cashews, and a jar of preserved lemons, the leeks and radishes were all I had to work with.
Except for a trip through an occasional salad bar, I can't remember the last time I ate a raw radish. I adore cooking and pickling them, so I decided I'd prepare both (together) to accompany our salmon cakes. It was stupidly easy.
I scrubbed and peeled the gnarly-skinned radishes, leaving a bit of the root for interest. They were skanky ugly....until I sliced them. Wow. I was stunned. When sliced, the cantankerous radish bulbs remarkably revealed vivid fuscia flesh softly bleeding to snow white while finishing with a slight green rim, much like....well, small seedless watermelons. Gorgeous.
After quartering and dividing the radishes into equal portions, I set them aside and sliced the baby leeks into thin diagonals.
Adapting a quick pickling method from The Lee Brother's, Simple Fresh Southern cookbook, I simmered 1 cup of white wine vinegar with 4 cloves of garlic, 2 teaspoons of kosher salt, 1 teaspoon of sugar, and 1 teaspoon of whole peppercorns. When the sugar and salt dissolved, I poured it over the quartered radishes, covered the container, and slid it into the refrigerator to chill.
For contrasting texture and flavor, I decided to braise the remaining radishes in butter and chicken stock. After melting 3 tablespoons of butter in a very hot skillet, I added the sliced leeks along with minced garlic, salt, and pepper. When the leeks softened, I tumbled the radishes into the skillet and deglazed the pan with 1 1/2 cups chicken stock.
I brought the stock to a boil, reduced it to a low simmer, clamped on a lid, and let the radishes bubble away while we happily drank wine in the parlor. After an hour, I slipped the braised tender radishes into an oven proof dish and slid them into a warm oven to hold until we were ready to dine.
After a few more slaphappy glasses of wine, Michael worked his magic with the salmon cakes. When they were perfectly crisped until golden brown, he topped them with a quick blender hollandaise (a delicious cheat), and snipped chives from the garden.
I nestled the braised radishes alongside the salmon cakes, tumbling the pickled radishes over them for a sensory contrast.
We've eaten braised radishes countless times. Since they're related to turnips, they tasted like turnips. No brainer. Last night, the braised watermelon radishes tasted like turnips jacked up on steroids. When cooked, their raw vibrant color and crisp texture mellowed into subdued softness, innocently cloaking the unexpected intense turnip flavor. Brilliant. The long braised leeks melted into onion candy, wrapping the bold radishes with needed sweetness.
Ideally, I should have sliced the pickled radishes a bit smaller. That being said, their crunchy, tart, and peppery bites were thankful respites to the big bold turnip flavors.
The golden crisp salmon cakes were unbelievable. Although utterly bathed with an oozing lemony hollandaise, they retained their exterior crunch while their moist salmon-flecked centers hinted with undertones of Old Bay Seasoning and snapped with bites of minced fresh green peppers. Heaven. Michael's magic. His realm.They were his best. Period.