Photo by Lisa Densmore
Fiddlehead ferns are one of spring's wild delicacies. If you pluck them just after they emerge from their subterranean slumber, but before they unfurl, they make a delicious, nutritious addition to any meal when grocery store vegetables look uninspiring.
Fiddleheads are so named because they look like the decorative scroll on the top of a violin. And they make sweet music on your taste buds. If you prepare them soon after harvesting them, they taste like a cross between a crispy string bean and young asparagus, and they're packed with Omega 3 and Omega 6 fatty acids, iron, potassium and fiber.
Any fern is a "fiddlehead" before it extends its fronds. Many are edible, though the ostrich fern (Matteuccia struthiopteris) commonly found in damp woodlands in the north-central and northeastern parts of North America produces the fiddlehead with the gourmet reputation. They are not cultivated, though some local grocery stores sell them for a short time in the early spring.
The best way to get fiddleheads is to find a patch in the woods and snap them off. Limit yourself to three per plant. Mature ostrich ferns usually produce seven scrolls, but over-picking kills the plant.
Many ferns resemble an ostrich fern. The bracken fern (Pteridium aquilinum) is carcinogenic, so it's important to know how to identify the right one. The fiddlehead of an ostrich fern is about an inch in diameter. An ostrich fern has a brown papery covering and a smooth stem. Though only an inch of the stem might poke above the ground, look for a deep U-shaped groove on the inside of the stem (the side under the scroll).
Before cooking fiddleheads, remove the brown papery skin and rinse them thoroughly. Some people eat fiddleheads raw though they contain a toxin that can give you a stomachache. Cooking destroys it. For best results, eat them as soon as possible after picking them. If you cover them, they might last a few days in the refrigerator, but their flavor is not as delicate and crunch not as crisp the longer you store them. Don't overcook them.
Fiddleheads are traditionally steamed, blanched or boiled and eaten hot with hollandaise sauce or butter and lemon. They also can be chilled and added to salads, but there are many other ways to serve them.
If you happen upon a patch of ostrich ferns past their edible prime, remember the spot so you can come back next year, a little earlier before they unfurl. — Lisa Densmore
Garlic sautéed fiddleheads
A vegetable side dish prepared traditionally but with a small twist
- 4 cups fiddlehead ferns, trimmed and rinsed
- 2 teaspoons salt
- 2 tablespoons vegetable or olive oil
- 2 cloves garlic, finely minced
- 1 shallot or half a small onion, finely diced
- 1 tablespoon butter
- grated Parmesan cheese
In a large pot of boiling water, add 1½ teaspoons salt and the fiddleheads. Return to a boil and blanch for two minutes, then drain and rinse in cold water. In a large frying pan, heat the oil over medium heat. Add the garlic and shallot. Sauté for one minute. Add the fiddleheads, butter and ½ teaspoon salt, and sauté about five minutes. Sprinkle with Parmesan cheese and serve immediately. Serves 8
Feisty fiddleheads on angel hair pasta
A vegetarian main dish or pasta side dish with a little kick
- 4 cups fiddlehead ferns
- 1 pound angel hair pasta
- 3 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 sweet red, orange or yellow pepper, sliced into fine, short strips
- 1 onion, diced
- 1 garlic clove, minced
- 4-6 mushrooms (morels are best), sliced thinly
- 2 tablespoons salt
- ¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper or black pepper
- ¼ teaspoon Tabasco sauce or your favorite hot sauce
- ¼ teaspoon dried oregano
- ¼ teaspoon dried thyme
- ¼ teaspoon dried basil
- ½ cup chicken broth
- ½ cup grated Parmesan cheese
In a large pot of boiling water, add the fiddleheads and 1½ teaspoons salt. Return to a boil and blanch for two minutes, then drain and rinse in cold water. At the same time, heat a second large pot of water and boil the angel hair pasta al dente as you continue preparing the fiddleheads. When the pasta is done, drain it and place it in a large serving bowl.
In a large frying pan, heat the olive oil over medium heat. Sauté the onion and garlic for about one minute. Add the mushrooms and sauté another minute. Add the fiddleheads, sweet pepper strips, ½ teaspoon salt, cayenne pepper, hot sauce, oregano, thyme, basil and chicken broth. Simmer for another five minutes.
Toss the fiddlehead mixture, parmesan cheese and the angel hair pasta together in the large serving bowl. Sprinkle with paprika and serve immediately. Serves 6 to 8
Note: Add 1½ pounds of cooked shrimp for a delicious seafood version of this recipe.