Marsh life can be incredibly edible when timing is right

HAPPY EATER

April 25, 1993|By ROB KASPER

It was the night we ate a marsh. There were 60 of us Everybody was dressed up in tuxedos and gowns.

We went to Rudy's 2900 restaurant in Carroll County, sipped vintage wine and ate -- Are you ready for this? -- cattail shoots. That's right -- those plants that grow in marshes. Chef Rudy Speckamp, a chef who makes food assume unconventional forms -- he has been known to transform fish into sausages -- made cattails a spring vegetable.

And a fine-tasting vegetable it was. Rudy sliced the spring cattails into slivers, fried them quickly in peanut oil, and served them. I think I speak for most of the land-dwellers at the dinner when I say that those were best cattails we had ever eaten.

Cattails, of course, are never served solo. These were served with terrapin that once swam around Smith Island on Maryland's Eastern Shore. Terrapin is not called "turtle." Maryland natives are quick to point that out. Terrapin is also not delicious, at least not usually.

A serving of terrapin, which consists of fore and aft parts of the shelled terrapin with a few of the in-between parts (liver and eggs) mixed in, is strong.

How strong? Well, previous versions of terrapin I encountered were strong enough to put hair on your chest, regardless of your gender.

Remarkably, the terrapin served at this dinner was not merely tolerable, it was positively pleasant to eat. That was because the dark terrapin meat on the plate was surrounded by a puree of butternut squash. In a post-meal interview, the chef said the sweetness of the squash not only made the terrapin taste better, it also made it look more appealing.

I made a mental note that the next time I had an entree that needed help, I would surround it with butternut squash. And toss on the cattails. A new wine was served with each course. The terrapin-cattail course wine was a 1991 Kendall-Jackson Sauvignon Blanc.

The terrapin and shoots were among the highlights of a dinner saluting the Chesapeake Bay organized by the Baltimore chapter of Confrerie de la Chaine des Rotisseurs, a fine-dining group.

The hors d'oeuvres honored the mollusks. There were crisp soft-shell clam fritters, raw oysters, and a terrine, or loaf, made of shellfish. This we ate while sipping glasses of champagne, Domaine Ste. Michelle brut.

For the next course we moved into deep waters, with hickory-smoked shad roe (big fish eggs) served with leeks, morel mushrooms, garlic mashed potatoes and fiddle-head ferns.

Not being a fern-eater, I thought the only function the plant had in a dining room was decoration. Again the chef set me straight. Rudy said that you can eat ferns, but only in the springtime when they have just poked through the ground, and are still curly. Once they straighten up, he said, they lose their youthful zest. The same could be said for most of us. A Boordy Vineyards Seyval Blanc, the "92 Sur Lie Reserve," was served with the fish and ferns.

The soup was silver-queen-corn chowder with a fried oyster floating in it. Not only did this dish have a magnificent roasted, creamy flavor, it also was free of unfamiliar plant life. It rivaled the terrapin as my favorite course of the evening. The wine was a 1991 Benzinger Fume Blanc.

Local vegetation returned at palate-cleaning time. Cucumbers were whipped into a granita, which is a cold, granular creation similar to a sorbet only greener and saltier.

Next came the terrapin and cattails, and then soft-shell crab with a timbale of crab meat and spaghetti squash.

The soft-shell crab had to be imported from Florida, since the local crabs have so far been reluctant to shed their shells. The Floridians were given the tempura treatment, battered and fried. They were quite good but came in second in my competition for best crab dish of the evening to the timbale, or drum-shaped mold, of crab meat and spaghetti squash. This was served with a 1989 Chateau St. Jean Chardonnay.

Dessert was a hot fruit cobbler doused with bourbon sauce.

A marsh had never tasted so good.

Not only was the evening enjoyable, I also found it educational.

Later that night, for instance, as I waddled into the house I spotted a fern growing in our back yard.

Alas, the fern was straight, not curly, which meant we could not harvest it. For the evening had taught me that you never eat a fern that is past its prime.

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