Sunday, April 25, 2010

further deliberations by our fritter subcommittee

I wasn't going to write about ramps this year, despite the risk that keeping quiet about them might lead to trouble with the food blog police. (I'm sure I'm already on some sort of watch-list for being insufficiently bacon-crazed and for only ever baking breads that get kneaded, among other things). I wasn't going to mention them but then I remembered that around this time last year I made ramp bhajis, loved them, and never got around to posting about them before the season ended. It seems particularly appropriate to call your attention to the recipe now because fritters of all varieties have been on my mind lately.

Ramps seem relatively pricey this year, and I'm assuming it's because more and more people know what they are and wish to take some home and not because growing conditions were unfavorable. Last year they were $3/bundle at the Union Square greenmarket (and the same the year before, if my memory is correct); I haven't priced them there this year but this morning I noticed them at my local (the Tompkins Square Park greenmarket) for $6/bundle. Six dollars! Have any of you taken on seasonal work this year to support your ramp-munching habit? Or tried smoking them?

greenmarket ramps

Berried Treasures ramps

There's no blue light special; those are yesteryear's ramps above.

Obviously it's preferable to gather your own ramps for free. I spotted plenty of them growing in the woods last weekend in Connecticut, particularly very close to the stream we crossed on our hike. If you're planning to forage your own be sure to bring something spoon-like; their little bulbs can be difficult to dislodge even if you're willing to get your fingers dirty.


ramps growing in the woods

On to the recipe. It comes from the always-reliable (in my experience) Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, and it's got chickpea flour in it (besan), which is reliably one of my favorite ingredients. The resulting fritters have plenty of exciting crisp wispy bits around the edges, and it's a nice change of pace to have ramps getting along with rather bold spices rather than dominating a dish. I'm not going to cut-and-paste the recipe because I didn't change anything about it apart from using ramps in place of the spring onions, so go have a look at it here. Ramps are more pungent than spring onions so you'll want them daintier than the "chunky slices" he calls for.

ramp bhajis

ramp bhajjis

Hugh F-W (even the Grauniad calls him that) gave a recipe for a radish goats' cheese raita to accompany his bhajis. It sounds great but I improvised one made with just yogurt, chopped cilantro, chopped mint, and a pinch of salt:

ingredients for raita

I don't have any measurements for the raita, sorry, but if you're confident enough in the kitchen to make ramp bhajis I'm sure you won't screw it up.

I've been thinking of them as bhajis, but the throat-clearing sounds coming from the direction of my fritter subcommittee remind me that you might look at them and see bhujia (or bhujiya) or pakoras. I've only been to northern India and these would be pakoras there. At the Bangladeshi-owned Indian restaurant near Tiny Banquet HQ they'd probably be bhujia (though they also have bhajees on the menu) and from what I understand they'd be bhujia in southern India. I don't want to make any enemies among the barons of the Big Bhujia industry so I'm open to calling these whatever seems most reasonable. We all agree they're fritters, correct?

Thursday, April 22, 2010

feeling slightly clammy

Is it possible you've been so preoccupied with ramps and other spring vegetables that you've neglected to think about clam cakes? I suppose you could make your own at home whenever you like, especially if you're willing to use frozen clams, but if you are the type to set off on a spontaneous road trip to Maine to eat them in their native habitat you've got to mind the calendar. My stepfather was doing just that and so a planned weekend visit to his place in CT recently turned into a relatively-unplanned visit to southern Maine instead.

To Ken's, specifically. A fried seafood joint in Scarborough, Maine. I am still officially not in the habit of blogging about eating sentient beings, and yet I feel obligated to tell you that Ken's is open for the season. Voila, clam cakes. There are lots of other things on the menu — fried clams, lobster rolls, etc. — but we went for clam cakes and did not regret it.

clam cakes clam cake innards

They're available in sandwich form (on hamburger buns) or all by themselves in little wax paper sacks. Most in our party eat them as pictured above, with crisp but otherwise utterly indifferent french fries, perfectly acceptable cole slaw, squishy rolls of the variety that would be disappointing elsewhere but become palatable in salty New England seaside air, and homemade tartar sauce (not on the menu, I think, but now you know to ask for it). Note the bloody mary in the background, although beer is fine too. I'm entirely convinced that as a meal this is more than the sum of its parts, but the seasonal habits of migratory eaters are hard to break. If you're in search of new habits or have yet to acquire any, my stepsister reports that clam cakes are pretty good dipped into lobster stew. I also noted two white-haired guys at a nearby table looked rather convincing eating theirs with a thin smear of yellow mustard.

As for what differentiates clam cakes from fritters, I can only tell you that I have never personally known them as fritters but have little reason to believe they are not, in fact, fritters on some basic level. Wikipedia says they are typically made with chopped clams in a batter of flour, milk, clam juice, eggs and baking powder. Very fritter-ish, no? I've never made them at home but were I to try, this recipe for clam fritters would be the one I would reach for; it looks appropriate and trustworthy and the results . . . look more or less like clam cakes to me.* I am almost — only almost — willing to hazard a guess that what's called a fritter on Long Island and in Massachusetts is called a cake in Maine and Rhode Island (e.g.). A few hungry minutes of research reveal plenty of exceptions, though I'm not sure it's fair to call them "exceptions" when there don't seem to be any firm rules.

As for whether clams are sentient beings, I am willing to say yes I think they are. At least, I don't see why they're not. They don't have a central nervous system but they do have sensations, responses to their surroundings, and a way of life. They have hearts, feet and gonads and varying degrees of interest in opening and shutting their homes. I don't know much about them but the pictures of their various features here seem helpful.

Anyhow, if you want to digest your first clam cakes of the season while walking on a chilly, deserted beach and photographing shuttered motels, you'd better hurry.

IMG_1687 1974

IMG_1684 1974

IMG_1664 magazine

IMG_1659 1974 off-season anchors

off-season galaxy


And if you want to take a few clam cakes for a ride back to NYC or other points south, Ken's will sell you uncooked ones. Don't freeze them or they'll turn gummy! In fact I think you might be better off getting cooked ones and re-heating them on a baking sheet. I'm pretty sure the ones at the restaurant are deep-fried and you won't get the same results pan-frying them at home.

If you are looking for a place to stop for a snack on your way up to Ken's, you might try Reilly's bakery in Biddeford, which has been in business since 1910. My stepfather is fond of their cream horns filled with buttercream frosting but they close around 1 o'clock on Saturdays, and apparently much of their supply sells out well before then. By the time we got there (maybe 1:15?) the door was locked and the display cases were bare. This stung a bit. As a kid I found rainy-day drives to Reilly's agonizing because they were inevitably preceded by awkward visits to distant relatives, and because I was always too full of blueberry pancake breakfasts to have any interest in baked goods. This time I was interested and not full of pancakes. Alas. Someday, Reilly's.

* I have a suspicion that many of the people who cook summer clam cakes for a living would go cross-eyed about Mr. Claiborne's fresh parsley, but if you want to experiment with it behind closed kitchen doors I'm not going to discourage you.