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Say Cheese: The curds of summer

Before and after. (Domenica Marchetti)

Every August my family and I head to northern Michigan to visit cousins and enjoy a week of lake life. If you are not familiar with this part of the country, you should know that it is spectacular, with miles upon miles of national forest land and sand dunes, farms and fruit orchards and picturesque towns dotting the shores of Lake Michigan.

Recipe Included

The region boasts a vibrant, and growing, local food and wine scene. Last year I wrote about a locally produced, award-winning raclette. It also happens to be home to the best darn A&W Restaurant I’ve even set foot in (actually, the only one I’ve ever set foot in).

Yes, it’s true. There is an exception to my normally steadfast no-fast-food rule, and it is the A&W in FrankfurtFrankfort, Mich., for two simple reasons:

1. Root beer floats.
2. Fried cheese curds.

Fried cheese curds are a requisite summer treat in certain parts of the Midwest, the way blue crabs are around here. Moreover, there is just something magical about the way a food so susceptible to heat manages to stay intact when it's tossed into hot oil.

When I came across fresh cheese curds at the White House farmers market last week, I knew I had to try to work that magic in my own kitchen. The curds were from Clear Spring Creamery, an organic dairy farm in Clear Spring, Md., that produces a small selection of cheeses, including a Camembert, plus deliciously thick yogurt drinks and what my daughter claims is the best chocolate milk she’s ever had.

Fresh cheese curds are nothing more than the solid part of milk after cultures and rennet have been added, causing the milk to curdle and separate and the solids to coagulate. Fresh curds are usually buttery and mildly sour in flavor, and springy in texture with a tell-tale "squeak" when you bite into them.

Although plain curds are best eaten really fresh — within hours of being made — those destined for the fryer benefit from a few days’ curing in the refrigerator. This dries them out a little, which reduces the likelihood that they will end up a gooey mess at the bottom of your skillet.

I ended up frying my cheese curds using the classic Italian method for frying just about anything; in essence, treating them as though they were tiny chicken cutlets. I coated them in lightly seasoned flour, beaten egg and bread crumbs. Then, in a crucial step, I popped them in the freezer for 30 minutes to firm up a bit. Finally, I fried them in vegetable oil, a step that took less than a minute for each batch.

What do you know? Every last one of those little curds fried up nicely, their warm, gooey centers protected by a delicious crunchy coating. And, just like summer, they were gone in the blink of an eye.

-- Domenica Marchetti (Follow me on Twitter.)

Fried Cheese Curds
4 servings

Serve these with ketchup for dipping and, preferably, a root beer float to wash them down.

MAKE AHEAD: The coated cheese curds need 20 to 30 minutes' freezer time to firm up before frying.

1/2 cup flour
1/4 teaspoon ground thyme
1/8 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon ground cayenne pepper
2 large eggs
1 cup plain dried bread crumbs
8 ounces cheese curds
Vegetable oil, for frying

Combine the flour, thyme, salt and cayenne pepper in a shallow bowl. Break the eggs into a second shallow bowl and beat lightly. Put the bread crumbs in a third shallow bowl.

Coat the curds in the follow order: first the flour mixture, then the egg, then the bread crumbs. Arrange the coated curds on a small rimmed baking sheet or plate and place in the freezer for 20 to 30 minutes.

Line a plate with several layers of paper towels. Pour enough oil into a large deep skillet to reach a depth of 1 1/2 to 2 inches. Heat the oil over medium-high heat to a temperature of about 375 degrees.

Working in batches, carefully drop some of the frozen cheese curds into the hot oil, taking care not to crowd the skillet. Fry for about 1 minute, turning them once or twice, until they are golden brown. Use a slotted spoon or a skimmer to transfer the fried curds to the paper-towel-lined plate.

Serve hot.

Per serving: 390 calories, 19 g protein, 18 g carbohydrates, 27 g fat, 12 g saturated fat, 18 mg cholesterol, 560 mg sodium, 0 g dietary fiber, 0 g sugar

By The Food Section  |  June 22, 2010; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  Recipes , Say Cheese  | Tags: Domenica Marchetti, Say Cheese, curds, recipes  
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