fiddlehead ferns
June 2, 2006

I'm trumped from the start. "Let's make fish en Papillote," she says, but I don't even know what that means (just anything cooked in packets of parchment paper or foil, I discover, but it sounds more complex in French). Next we hit Chelsea Market where Wendy exclaims over some tightly wound greenery called fiddlehead ferns. "I've always wanted to try them. Have you?" Well, I've never heard of such a fern as fiddlehead (or fiddlestick as I insistently call them for at least an hour before getting it right). So, sure. We can try them.

Even in Wendy's minuscule Manhattan kitchen (but it has a dishwasher), I'm out of my league. Wendy's kitchen is governed by the law of the doctor's daughter: no sponges, hotbeds of germs; the sink is a deathtrap; that raw fish is even now trying to figure out how to contaminate every last piece of silverware. (I, on the other hand, was raised in a house where eating food off the floor meant the calories didn't count.) I want to tease Wendy for what I want to term a neurosis (she holds her breath while I grab a knife from the sink I've only just used—and exhales as I remember to wash it), but something about it rubs off: I've been scrubbing our sink with 409 ever since.

It's Friday night and we've both underestimated how much energy we'll have to make dinner after work and grocery shopping. Cooking together we're slow—we want to check in about each step, and improvising becomes negotiating—but we keep each other on task and where other Friday nights we might give up and fall asleep, we still manage to get dinner on the table by 10.

We pay $18 a pound for sea bass—which is probably why I've never made sea bass before—but when we're finished I'm a luxury fish convert. It's the best fish I've ever had, let alone made, though I can't say for sure if it's the quality of the fish or the parchment paper casing. It might be a cliché to say that it melts in your mouth, but it does, silkily, bursting with flavor. This fish is, quite simply, of a higher order.

Fiddlehead ferns are only available for about a month in spring. They're hard to clean (we try several websites for advice on how, and finally just soak them in water) and taste like snow peas, but with a more interesting texture (they sort of come uncoiled in your mouth and pop a little). We devise a stir fry with baby bok choy, mushrooms and red pepper to complement the soy sauce-ginger sea bass marinade.

The meal is stunning; the wine is a crisp complement to it (one we've been sampling since long before the meal hit the table). The food overpowers conversation and, for this crowd, well, that's noteworthy.

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