Seasonal Cooking 30 Mar 2011 10:11 pm
On 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.
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.
The 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!