Friday, April 30, 2010

What do fairies eat?

That’s the kind of question I get a lot, usually as part of an effort to postpone lights-out. Others include “do mermaids wear jewelry?” and “is unicorn poop sparkly?” I’m no expert on these subjects, but I’m always game for spinning a yarn, even if it results in an age-inappropriate bedtime. And sometimes, nature throws something our way that supplies the perfect visual to satisfy little  curiosities.

It’s fiddlehead (or "fairy food" to my daughters) season up in New England, and I just spent a recent weekend crouched in the dewy grass with a pair of kitchen shears and my camera. I would appear a few berries short of a pie to people who didn’t know what I was up to–like our neighbors, who already look at me a little askance for pouring my daughters raw milk and letting them run the fields barefoot in March.

When I first began mining our yard for these sweet, grassy-tasting whorls–something about our damp, black soil up in Connecticut encourages them to flourish–I hadn’t a clue what species I was plucking. A fiddlehead’s a fiddlehead, right? 

My Peterson Field Guide to Edible Wild Plants informed me that I had been laying the nascent fronds of the ostrich fern (Matteuccia struthiopteris) atop our risottos. The giants of the fern kingdom, they tower over my daughters when fully unfurled (usually by the end of May), graceful as green peacock feathers. When my husband and I got hitched right there in the yard, visitors from other parts of the country couldn’t get over the backdrop of primeval luxuriance they supplied. Southerners: that’s our payback for enduring mud season, and for the mid-May snowfall that dusted our nuptials that year. What riches!

Elizabeth Schneider’s excellent book, Vegetables from Amaranth to Zucchini, enlightened me further. It’s a painstakingly comprehensive reference, and if you’re a greenmarket enthusiast or dabbling forager, as I am, I would recommend making room on your shelf for this one. I learned all I wanted to know and more than I can ever absorb from her entry on fiddleheads, including, most remarkably, that I had been on the right track all along–ostrich ferns are your best bet for eating. Others are edible, but certain lovely but insidious specimens like royal ferns have been found to promote stomach cancer over the long haul. Not these.
I don't clearly remember how I used to prepare them in those early days, but I'm guessing I threw them in a pan with loads of butter, and they still tasted like field scrub on the inside. Schneider advises boiling them in some salted or baking soda-laced water to tenderize, enhance brightness, and bring up the flavor, and I will say the result is vastly improved. On early spring nights in the country, our go-to dinners are linguinis and risottos with fiddleheads and plenty of butter and parm, a little garlic, and the chorus of spring peepers trilling up through the forest. Add morels, and they're even better. This year, seeking different flavors, I stumbled upon a recipe in David Chang's Momofuku cookbook, for asparagus with poached eggs and miso butter. Fiddleheads are a little like asparagus, right? About discovering miso butter, Chang writes that he found it "so good I licked it off my fingers, like cake frosting."  That's about right. Cook the egg lightly so it's still trembling, pierce it, and let the yolk anoint your plate with a river of bright yellow. Mix it all around with the miso butter. A perfect bite is one that combines all the elements and "makes it come out even," like Albert's lunches in Bread and Jam for Frances.

Pass up the overpriced fiddleheads sold in gourmet grocery stores, unless they truly still look perky–I've found they're usually pretty tired. Farmers' markets are good bets, and if you're going for wild, pick them during that fleeting season when they're still tightly coiled atop the fern crowns like emeralds in the rough. As with babies, you blink and they're all grown up.

Fiddleheads with poached eggs and miso butter
Adapted from recipes by David Chang and Elizabeth Schneider

  • 5 tablespoons unsalted butter at room temperature
  • 8 tablespoons white miso
  • Fresh fiddleheads (6-10 per person) or fresh asparagus spears
  • Eggs (1 or 2 per person)
  1. Miso butter: make sure butter is soft and workable. Mash it and the miso together in a small bowl with a fork or spoon until it's completely blended and smooth. Keep it at room temperature if you're serving, otherwise refrigerate in an airtight container, for a few weeks.  
  2. Fiddleheads: Trim off any long tails or brown ends. If you have picked them yourself, you may need to brush off the scaly bronze membranes that protect emerging fiddleheads. Bring a large pot of salted water to boil, drop the fiddleheads in, and boil for 5 minutes or so. You may taste test as you go along. They should be bright green and the texture of al dente asparagus. Note: if using asparagus instead, snap off the tough bottoms and peel stalks if they are large. Boil just for a couple minutes or pan roast in a skillet with butter until lightly browned. 
  3. Poached eggs: In a heavy saucepan, bring about 2" of water to a gentle simmer. Add a splash of white vinegar. When water is shivering and very lightly bubbling–not vigorously–gently crack egg in the center–if using multiple eggs, give them lots of space. Allow egg to coagulate undisturbed–you can gently spoon some of the pan water on top of the egg if it is peeking above the water. Once the white is opaque and egg holds together in one piece but yolk is still liquid (I timed it at about 3 minutes), remove it very gently from the pan with a slotted spoon. Drain for a bit before serving. You may also use an egg ring or poaching cup or use this trick my friend Tara sent me. 
  4. Assembly: Warm the miso butter just a bit–not too much or it will liquefy! Spread about 3 tablespoons' worth on each plate to make a base for the other components and arrange them as you like.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Roots, branches, and leaves

My branch of the family tree is the one that grew north. The gnarled trunk sits squarely in Richmond, VA, but I never actually lived there–my grandparents and plenty of other kin inhabited that city of laburnum- and redbud-lined streets, though, so I spent a good slice of my childhood visiting. I could almost–not quite–call it my own if I really wanted to. But my parents had already gotten out of dodge in the late ‘60’s and settled in Alexandria–which to many “real” Virginians doesn’t count–and then my sister and I took the theme a step further and moved way the hell up to New York. This migration was, I suspect, somehow predestined, as it set off barely a ripple and had already begun with my folks, anyway, and with the purposeful shedding of my southern accent, inherited from them but conspicuous enough where I grew up to require ditching. I haven’t been back to Richmond in years, not since the last of my greats and grands departed this earth, but there are other places I can go to get my southern fix–as I did these past weeks. Specifically, I'm thinking of the River, down near Deltaville, VA. Or the Rivah, I would say if speaking in an old-timer’s Tidewater tongue.

I drive back once a year or so, and the flavor and sights always roll over me the same. The neverending haul, the decaying farmhouses and lanes bearing names like “Bob’s Hole” and “Nohead Bottom” flying by. Toward the end, churches seem to outnumber houses, and if you drive all the way out to Stingray Point, marinas beat out churches. Then my family's house, the one my grandfather built the year after I was born. You can still find the wooden hat rack–the one with your choice of straw, floppy floral, or mock captains’ caps. There, in the sleeping loft, is the box of Marlboro dominoes we used to line up and click together in courses. Visit the powder room, and you'll still be greeted by that same hot orange sink and the loud, blue-and-green striped wallpaper, proud survivors of the 70’s and numerous redecorations. And in the garage, a wall of cast iron skillets of all sizes–hanging, naturally, alongside soldier-straight fishing rods and power tools.

These, of course, bring me to the food memories, which are abundant and greasy. Fluffy spoon bread. Spot (a.k.a. croaker), the first fish I ever hooked, whisked straight out of the water and fried in butter for breakfast. Collards gifted from friends' gardens to my grandmother (who once, notoriously, washed heaps of them in the neighbors’ bathtub during a well outage), stewed til they didn’t have a prayer against even a baby's gums. A bushel of blue crabs spread out and picked atop yesterday’s paper–I learned that art by the age of six. Oh, and the fried seafood orgy at the local all-you-can eat buffet, lurid with heat lamps and crammed with the largest people you ever saw together in one room. That’s where I got introduced to oysters, though you could hardly call them that after the insults they had endured. Maybe they were a good place to start, those crunchy, batter-heavy pebbles, indistinguishable (except in size) from the hush puppies offered next to them. Now I’ll eat an oyster any way it's served: slurped raw, tempura-ed, or chowdered. Or, in a recent favorite twist, grilled on the half shell outdoors, preferably overlooking the waters in which they fattened. 
I adore going back, but I always leave with the feeling that I can never really go back. For one thing, a few key players have left the game. For another, I can never again be the urchin tracking sand through the house–because now I'm the grown-up chasing behind with the broom. I watch as my daughters dye Easter eggs and run down the great hill, across the sand and into the shallows (which they did, thanks to the April heat wave). They could easily stand in for my sister and me at their age, but I’m looking at us through my own, adult eyes. It's eerie, gratifying, and oddly circular all at once.

And we’re making our own grown-up food memories now, because that's what it's all about. The rockfish (striped bass) have rebounded and taste delicious any way you cook them. We've enjoyed some epic riverside feasts with cousins. Always there's wine, because it flows enthusiastically when my old man's on the scene and seems to taste better with a briny wind blowing off the Chesapeake. And last year, to our delight, we discovered morels sprouting in the poplar stand behind the house; you really can't beat just-picked morels sauteed in a little brown butter. Unfortunately, Easter fell too early and dry this year to bring them up yet, but I’ll be back for them and the oysters and all the other pleasures…that's the fun of having feet in two worlds. 

Oysters Grilled on the Half Shell 
Years back, at a wedding in Alabama, my father cajoled this recipe out of the cooks working a huge outdoor wood-fired oyster roasting station. You can find out how to rig your own on page 414 of The Lee Bros. Southern Cookbook, or you can just use a grill. Burn natural wood charcoal or throw on a handful of soaked wood chips for maximum flavor.  

  • 1 dozen oysters, shucked, oysters and their liquor left on the half shell
  • 4 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • garlic salt
  • onion salt
  • (or, substitute 2 pressed or minced garlic cloves plus a pinch of sea salt for garlic and onion salts) 
  • Fresh lemon juice–about 2 tablespoons
  • A couple "throws" of Worcestershire sauce
  • Freshly ground pepper

Preheat grill to medium-high. Throw soaked wood chips on the fire if using; just make sure fire doesn't reach up to grates. Melt butter and stir in other ingredients to taste. Follow your taste buds, but be careful with the onion/garlic salts if using, since oysters already contain plenty of salt on their own. Ditto with the Worcestershire–it's strong. Arrange oysters in their shells on grill and drizzle with plenty of the butter mixture. Grill for 5 minutes or so, lowering lid for a minute or two to hasten cooking, and remove when oysters are opaque and hot (times will vary). Serve with additional lemon wedges or hot sauce, if desired. Use bread to mop up the sauce left in the shells.