Fiddleheads: Unique Taste of Spring

by Elizabeth Skipper | May 15th, 2013 | Ask the Chef

fern2Fiddleheads will be arriving soon. However, I have never cooked with them. I’m not sure what to do with them or what they’ll taste like. Do you have any suggestions?

This wild early spring vegetable will both arrive and depart soon; the season for fiddleheads is very brief. So if you see some, snap them up! Especially if you don’t know if you like them, try them right away. Then you can decide whether to forage or purchase more to preserve by pickling or freezing.

This vegetable is striking looking. A vivid emerald green, it looks just like its namesake. How does it taste? It’s so hard to describe how something unique tastes, but many say like asparagus with a woodsy or nutty overtone. I’ll just say asparagus is as close a description as I can think of, although you wouldn’t mistake one for the other. They certainly don’t look anything alike.

Fiddleheads are the unopened fronds of the ostrich fern. They should be bright green, with tightly coiled heads, and no more than about two inches of stem left on them. The leaves should not be starting to unfurl. The outside brown papery skin should be dry.

If you want to try foraging for them, get permission from the landowner if you’re on private land. Only harvest two or three fiddleheads from each plant so it has enough energy to regenerate. Be sure you can make a positive identification; if you harvest a similar looking fern, you can wind up with one which is suspected of being cancer-causing, or one which will cause digestive distress. As it is, there have been reported cases of food-borne illness caused by fiddleheads themselves, so it’s extremely important to parboil or steam them before using in other preparations. Never eat them raw.

If the fiddleheads you bring home still have the brown papery outer covering, brush it off and rinse them thoroughly with a sprayer or under running water. The cut ends and anywhere the fiddlehead has been bruised will have turned brown; trim these spots and re-cut the ends.

Bring a large pot of water to a boil, and salt it. Add the fiddleheads, a handful at a time, adding another handful as the water returns to a boil. Set the timer for 10 minutes unless the fiddleheads are very small (in which case they’ll probably need 6-7 minutes boiling); then drain and unless you want to eat them immediately, plunge into cold water to stop the cooking. By the way, don’t be alarmed at the color the cooking water turns – it will be brown – that’s normal. That will go down the drain, not into your tummy.

If eating immediately, you can simply add butter and a bit of salt. Fiddleheads are also good with brown butter or hollandaise. Try mixing them with another spring delight, morel mushrooms, if you’re lucky enough to find some, and some reduced heavy cream. Warm, they’re tasty sautéed or stir-fried. Cold, they’re good in salads with a simple vinaigrette dressing.

If you want to preserve some for future meals, blanch them as outlined above, chill, dry thoroughly, and then spread them out on a baking sheet. Place the sheet flat in the freezer, and when the fiddleheads are frozen, package them into bags or hard-sided containers. You can also pickle fiddleheads, although I’ve never done it and don’t have a recipe to share.

Here, though, is a simple recipe which allows their unique flavor to shine:

½ to ¾ lb. fiddlehead ferns, cleaned & trimmed
2 TB extra virgin olive oil
1 clove garlic, minced
Salt & pepper

Either steam or parboil the fiddleheads for 7-10 minutes, depending on size. They should be almost tender.

Heat the olive oil in a medium-sized skillet and sauté the fiddleheads just until they’re heated through. Add the minced garlic, salt & pepper to taste, and cook until the garlic starts to take on color. Serve immediately.

Fiddleheads can sometimes be found canned. As with asparagus, this is a poor substitute for the fresh vegetable – don’t bother. Enjoy this unique springtime treat while it’s available.

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