This Fancy 4-Ingredient Party Starter Is Secretly Cheaper Than Making Onion Dip

July 18, 2018

Every week in Genius Recipes—often with your help—Food52 Creative Director and lifelong Genius-hunter Kristen Miglore is unearthing recipes that will change the way you cook.

The very best dinner party starters aren’t just there to buy you time to get the rest of dinner buttoned up (or, conversely, to absorb the drinks while the rest of dinner remains un-buttoned).

No, the very best ones act as ice-breakers in themselves—a little surprise to kick-start the conversation, some hands-on fun to set people at ease. And better still if they require about four ingredients and zero time, but look casually cookbook-cover gorgeous, all the same. (Also if they—despite some fancy-sounding components—cost less than making DIY onion dip, simply because of the modest number and sheer power of the ingredients.)

I was lucky to come across one of these specimens at a dinner party recently, when Farideh Sadeghin, culinary director of Munchies, set out a plate of tiny radishes pulled from their rooftop garden, alongside a bowl of vanilla butter and a smaller one of crunchy salt. The idea was so novel, the vanilla butter so hauntingly delicious that once the radishes were gone, we dipped ruffled potato chips in the butter instead. This all gave us a lot to talk about.

Join The Conversation

Top Comment:
“Coincidentally, I recently put away my butter keeper when I realized I really like butter cold, too. Just a few days ago, I even googled “cold butter” but only found hacks on how to make it soften quickly if you forgot to leave your butter out. So funny I should I get this in my email this morning! ”
— kim

Farideh told me that she’d learned this vanilla-butter-as-party-starter trick from chef Alex Raij, who had stopped by the Munchies test kitchen to bust out a roof garden-inspired dinner. But when I reached out to Raij about the recipe, I learned there was much more behind her thinking (and vanilla butter’s allure) than a simple combination of good ingredients.

Raij was initially inspired by a snack at delicatessen in Rome called Roscioli that combined salty Spanish anchovies with curls of cold vanilla butter. “I was so enchanted with it, I came home and put it on everything now,” Raij said. Her take on Roscioli’s dish, a deliberately plain cracker with a thin tube of vanilla butter and a very good-quality Spanish anchovy, has been on the menu at her NYC restaurant El Quinto Pino ever since, and she riffs on it often for parties, big and small.

I have this thing about butter being chilled. I’m obsessed with it.
Alex Raij

Her connection to this dish isn’t an accident. For one thing, raised in an Argentine family, she grew up on compound butters (at steakhouses, it was common to be served butters mixed with anchovy and hard boiled egg or Roquefort along with grilled meats).

The next part of her story took me by surprise. “What’s important is the temperature of the butter,” she told me. “It should be plastic and cold.” This sounds nothing like what I’d expect to hear from a chef or others who spend their time fixating on ideal states of food—which, for butter, I thought, was creamy-soft and spreadable. What else explains the booming butter keeper industry on Food52? And yet: “I have this thing about it being chilled,” she said. “I’m obsessed with it.”

This, too, stems from her childhood, when butter was always kept in the fridge, never left out to soften. “My cinnamon toast was always torn, with chunks of solid butter,” Raij explained. “Like crystallized honey, over time that came to be the way I liked it.” And I finally understood. I like those that way, too. I too aim for the unmelted spots of heavily buttered toast, before they disappear. But I’ve never talked about it with other people, let alone read validating instructions in a cookbook: Serve the butter cold and plastic.

Even if you grew up, like some of Raij’s childhood friends, in a soft-butter household, there are other good reasons to keep the butter cold here. When confronted with a bite of sharp radish and a concentrated hit of salt, the butter cools them both, letting the 170 or so aromatic compounds in vanilla release as the butter melts on your tongue.

Here, out of all the ways Raij described using vanilla butter in our conversation (1), we have two almost-equally simple ways to serve it at a party: one rustically beautiful with a pot of butter and whole radishes piled on a board, à la Farideh; one fancied up a little, with slices of butter and radish on crackers, à la Raij. Both served cold.

Choose your own adventure, then see what conversations it kicks off.

(1) For the record: on French ham and butter sandwiches (or Southern tomato and butter ones), with artichokes, with sweet soppressata or other charcuterie that isn’t seasoned with paprika, on cinnamon toast, browned and drizzled over red mullet like sole meunière. And anytime she leaves some behind at a party, “Someone invariably bakes something out of it the next day and brags about it,” she said. “It next-levels everything.”

Photos by Ty Mecham

Got a genius recipe to share—from a classic cookbook, an online source, or anywhere, really? Please send it my way (and tell me what's so smart about it) at [email protected]—thank you to Munchies Culinary Director Farideh Sadeghin and her rooftop radishes for this one!

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See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Clare
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  • Patty Campus Butterfield
    Patty Campus Butterfield
I'm an ex-economist, lifelong-Californian who moved to New York to work in food media in 2007, before returning to the land of Dutch Crunch bread and tri-tip barbecues in 2020. Dodgy career choices aside, I can't help but apply the rational tendencies of my former life to things like: recipe tweaking, digging up obscure facts about pizza, and deciding how many pastries to put in my purse for "later."


Clare December 27, 2018
I made this recipe with a vanilla bean, radishes, salt, and very plain crackers. People were suspicious at first, but after they tried it once, they were lining up for it again. Not cheap, agreed, but tasty.
Galapagos December 26, 2018
I made this unpopular Genius Recipe. The vanilla butter was delicious and I had fresh out of the ground radishes from the farmers market. The combination was OK but the butter would be better on toast.
Lanee August 13, 2018
If the butter is cold, how do you eat it with whole radishes? I can’t imagine you can dip them into cold butter.
jennifer July 22, 2018
I'm gonna try this. I am skeptical but intrigued. Vanilla and radishes aren't a flavor combination that sounds like it would be good....but I love unexpected surprises.
Patty C. July 19, 2018
Kristen, the Pin buttons which weren't working yesterday are working fine today. Thank you
Eric K. July 18, 2018
Delicious. I'd eat that vanilla butter with a spoon.
FS July 18, 2018
The only vanilla paste I was able to find contained all kinds of funky stuff other than actual vanilla. There's probably some good, pure vanilla paste out there but it's most likely too expensive for this recipe.
bunten July 18, 2018
I've bought it here: https://www.amazon.com/gp/offer-listing/B076DJQTQD/ref=sr_1_2_olp?ie=UTF8&qid=1531964916&sr=8-2&keywords=Vanilla+Bean+Paste%2C+Natural%2C+2+Ounce%2C+LorAnn&condition=new
elisamama September 18, 2018
for the past few days, for the above post and for all other amazon links on food52, the links go to amazon's home page, not to the specific item in question. Links from other sites to amazon products work fine. Is that a problem with my computer or with the amazon links food52?
Patty C. July 18, 2018
This does sound delicious. I always Pin new recipes to my Pinterest boards so I can find them again quickly. I tried to save this via your pinterest links but they won't allow saving.
Kristen M. July 18, 2018
Hi Patty, did you try the hot pinkish-red pin button labeled "Pin" near the top of the article (on mobile, it might just be a big P)? I also have Pinterest's plug-in installed in my browser so I can pin any image easily, though sometimes I have to try a couple times.
Emily L. July 18, 2018
I fail to see how this could possibly be cheaper than onion dip. Don't get me wrong, it sounds delicious, but this recipe would cost me at least $20, vanilla is super expensive.
Melinda B. July 18, 2018
I was just thinking the same thing.
Kristen M. July 18, 2018
If you're making any sort of homemade onion dip, like the one I linked above in the article, the ingredients can easily add up to more, because of the sheer number of ingredients (they do at my local stores in New York). I know vanilla beans can be expensive in some stores, but I've been happy to find them for $10 at Whole Foods here, and a small amount goes a long way. Raij pointed out to me that the vanilla paste option is even more economical, since it lasts a long time and can be used in lots of ways, like vanilla extract.
robinorig July 18, 2018
"omit if not using vanilla paste, which is slightly sweetened" do you mean the opposite, to omit if using vanilla paste which is slightly sweetened? Not sure it makes sense as written to further sweeten it... Thanks. Otherwise this sounds delicious.
Kristen M. July 18, 2018
Yes, great catch! I've fixed this—thank you.
kim July 18, 2018
I enjoyed this article and am looking fo to making vanilla butter with the vanilla paste I just purchased but have yet to use. And I can only imagine how fabulous it will be with farmers’ market radishes! Coincidentally, I recently put away my butter keeper when I realized I really like butter cold, too. Just a few days ago, I even googled “cold butter” but only found hacks on how to make it soften quickly if you forgot to leave your butter out. So funny I should I get this in my email this morning!
Kristen M. July 18, 2018
Kim, I love this! I bet we'll see more cold butter fans crawl out of the woodwork.