Fiddlehead Fern-damentals

Published on Fri, 05/16/2014 - 12:00pm

Years ago, I had a shady spot on the northeast side of the garage that never got much sun and often too much water.Ferns thrived there,spreading all around the side and back of the garage—until we obliterated them when building a new structure.

Had I known then that ostrich fern shoots—more commonly known as fiddleheads—are a rare and tasty backwoods delicacy, I would have been more careful. Prepared, the taste is reminiscent of the slight bitterness of asparagus combined with the pungency of artichoke … and maybe a little green bean or okra undertone:Earthy, but fresh.

Where the wild things are

The emergence of these delectable coils fall into the same confidential category as morel mushrooms and secret berry patches: Fiddleheads are wild, delicious produce with a shortlived season, making them valuable and rare. In other words: Get ’em while you can.As with any “wildcrafted” food—that is, food foraged from its natural habitat—it’s best to learn the ropes from an experienced fiddlehead fancier. While many wild and domestic ferns
are edible, some are not and may even be poisonous.

Pick and prepare

When you find a patch, it’s safe to pick these savory scrolls when they are no more than three inches tall—one inch is better still, as they will be tightly wound. If the fiddlehead is beginning to sprout leaves, back off and save it for next year.What’s that, you say someone in your farmer’s market is selling fiddleheads? Lucky you!Buy all you can and get them home quickly. Extras can be frozen in water for later use.Cleaning your fiddleheads of the scaly, papery growth is important. Two methods are used, often together. First, put your fiddleheads in a paper grocery bag and shake gently but persistently for several seconds. Dump and repeat.

Next, put your fiddleheads in a two-bath rinse. The first will soak away most of the remaining residue, and a second rinse should get it all. Snap off any part of the stem that feels woody. Now they’re ready for cooking.

Simple does it

Fiddleheads should go into boiling water for a few minutes. Think of it as preparing them,rather than cooking them.After five minutes, you can pull them out for sautéing in a little butter (and maybe some garlic) to toss them into your favorite pasta or salad. Or, continue boiling for another five minutes if they are to be used as part of a larger recipe.

Check out the recipe for Fittlehead Frittata.