Monthly ArchiveMarch 2011

Seasonal Cooking 30 Mar 2011 10:11 pm

Batter-fried Fiddleheads: a Spring Preview

Beer Battered Fiddleheads with Green AioliOn Not Eating Out in New York, Cathy Erway and the proprietors of the Ger-Nis Culinary and Herb Center posed an interesting recipe challenge: create a “Sustainable Spring” recipe.  Spring ingredients have not yet arrived here in the Northeast, so this would take some imagination, and maybe also a bit of luck. Well, luck was with me last weekend, and in the produce bin at Dean and Deluca, downtown New York’s venerable fancy food shop, I found fiddleheads. They looked a little gnarly — they weren’t the fresh, seasonal treat I’ll soon find in the local farmers markets  — but they were good enough to try out the entry I’d dreamed up for Cathy’s spring recipe contest: beer-battered fiddleheads, fried up golden brown, and dipped in a garlicky aioli.

Fiddleheads, along with ramps, are among the very first green things to appear in the farmers markets after a long winter of apples and turnips from cold storage.  And like ramps, fiddleheads are foraged, not farmed.  They’re truly a crop that’s more organic than organic: not only are they grown without agricultural chemicals, they’re grown without agriculture! They simply appear, as soon as the sun and the soil is warm enough. To maintain the crop year after year, the forager needs only to pick some, not all, of the delicate fern-tops, so that the ferns will live on to grow again next spring.Fiddleheads

Batter-frying fiddleheads poses a problem: how to coat them with batter without hiding their distinctive, curlicue shape? I started by thinning out the batter with a little carbonated water, but still when dunked into it the fiddleheads became shapeless blobs that could’ve been beer-battered chunks of anything. While I stood scratching my head, my girlfriend Karol devised a smart technique: instead of dunking them completely in the batter, she swirled them gently in a thin layer of batter poured onto a plate. Perfect: this allowed just enough batter to cling to the fiddleheads, while still letting their spiral figures show through.

Batter Fried FiddleheadsThe aioli was simple and straightforward and relied entirely on ingredients I had on hand: garlic, salt, an egg yolk, olive oil and a lemon. My dream to was to make a seasonal aioli from spring garlic, but I couldn’t find any, not even at Dean & Deluca, so this time around ordinary garlic had to do. Since I didn’t have garlic greens to give it a spring-green hue, I improvised with some finely chopped chives. The result was fresh tasting and just garlic-spiked enough. Making it was so easy I’ll think twice before picking up that next jar of flat-flavored mechanical mayo from the grocery store.

The final dish was a real springtime treat – or, in this case, a pre-springtime treat. I hope to try the recipe again as soon as I find some locally-harvested, truly seasonal fiddleheads at the market – if spring ever gets here!

Here’s the Recipe for Beer-battered Fiddleheads with Green Aoili.

Seasonal Cooking 11 Mar 2011 05:43 pm

Homemade Cream Cheese a.k.a. Spreadable Yogurt

On line at Ronnybrook Dairy’s greenmarket booth last week a woman waxed euphoric about how delicious was their yogurt cheese and how much she missed it. Uncharacteristically I kept my mouth shut and didn’t butt in to say how easily she could make it for herself at home.

“Yogurt cheese” is just yogurt that’s been drained and pressed to give it a thick, spreadable consistency. I use it like cream cheese as a spread on banana bread or scones or biscuits for a quick breakfast. Unlike cream cheese it’s spreadable at fridge temperature. And it’s got all those famous yogurt health benefits in place of the stabilizers and preservatives needed to hold together a package of Kraft’s Philadelphia brand. I think it tastes better too: fresher, brighter, less gummy. Its tangy flavor is less neutral than cream cheese though, so it may not be ideal for some of those favorite cream cheese recipes.

To make it you need a large piece of cheese cloth, a colander, and something heavy – say, a big can of tomato sauce. Lay the cheese cloth in two or three layers inside the colander, leaving plenty of overhang at the colander’s edges. Set the colander over a large bowl and pour 1 quart of plain yogurt onto the cheesecloth. Take one of the overhanging edges and lay it flat over the yogurt; repeat with the remaining edges so that the yogurt is completely covered. Set a small plate on top of the folded cheesecloth and set the weight on top of the plate. Set aside and allow to drain for 3 or 4 hours or overnight in the fridge. Remove the yogurt cheese from the cheesecloth and keep it in a sealed container in the fridge. (I still haven’t figured out what to do with the sour whey that drains off. It’s got to be good for something.)

Mostly, I’ve eaten the unflavored yogurt cheese as-is, relying on the scone or banana bread underneath it to supply the extra tastiness. The possibilities for flavorings are endless though. I mixed maple syrup and finely chopped walnuts into one batch with great success, and I sweetened another batch with some chopped farm-canned apricots. Simply spreading the unflavored cheese on toast and topping it with a layer of marmalade works great too. Vanilla and honey are flavorings I haven’t tried yet but that  surely would work very nicely. And what about savory flavors? Roasted garlic? Sure! Curry powder? Why not? And I’ll bet a handful of chopped dill would make it ready for that ultimate cream-cheese-replacement test: lox. Stay tuned to see if it works!