Fiddlehead Ferns

Short and sweet is the season of the fiddlehead.  Emerging before asparagus with a texture and flavor reminiscent of the beloved aforementioned vegetable, fiddleheads feed our need for spring green stalks.  Plus, they look cool – like an otherworldly alien vegetable.

Fiddleheads are the unfurled frond of edible species of ferns, such as the Lady Fern or the Ostrich Fern.  Not every fern species is entirely safe to eat, so there is obvious importance in knowledgeable foraging and correct identification.  (A big reason I do my foraging at the Farmers Market – some things, for me, are better left to the professionals!)  Bracken ferns, I’m told, are absolutely delicious, their flavor highly prized in Japan, though consuming them is considered risky, by some more than others.

Resembling the Scroll of a Violin, The Fiddlehead Fern is Aptly Named

Some liken the taste and texture of fiddleheads to a cross between asparagus, green beans, and okra.  Without likening them to another vegetable, I think them green-tasting, like early morning in the wet woods, a flavor that reminds you that they have just emerged from the soil.  But I see what people mean when they mention okra – there can be a slight viscous quality to them, which is why I like to contrast all that green with a few rich components.

Here’s what I suggest to market shoppers when I’m cooking fiddleheads:

Give them a wash and remove any dark or rust-colored chaff.  That orangish-black stuff will lend a bitter taste to fiddleheads.  Actually, it’s amazing what these things look like when plucked from the woods – many creepily resemble black, fuzzy caterpillars.  Foragers who sell at the market will most likely have painstakenly removed most of the chaff for you, and pre-washed the ferns.  Thoughtful, yes, but also good marketing – would you really want to buy the “before”?  Ick.

I recommend par-boiling or blanching the fiddleheads in salted water, then adding them to a sauté.  Just put together a simple sauté of ingredients such as good extra virgin olive oil & chopped garlic.  To this, you can embellish with onions and mushrooms.  Or try bacon or pancetta and shallots.  Or butter, leeks, and fresh spinach – these sautés, incorporating rich flavors, will compliment the fiddleheads by contrasting their assertive woodsy green taste.

Have a pot of boiling, salted water ready when your sauté is nearly ready.  Plunge the fiddlehead ferns into the water and cook as you would asparagus – check them after about 2 minutes – by eating one.  If they are crisp-tender to your liking, lift them out with a strainer or spider.  If they need a little more time, check them again after 30 seconds.  Like asparagus, the ferns will go from cooked to overcooked in a very short window of time.  Lift them from the cooking water rather than straining them out – sometimes there is a little sediment in the fronds that will come loose and sink the bottom of the pot.  Lifting the ferns out will leave it behind.

Add the drained ferns directly to your finished hot sauté and toss together to combine.  Serve at once.

Why blanch?  3 reasons.

  1. Blanching ensures that the fiddleheads cook evenly.  This would be more difficult, though not impossible, if they are added directly to the sauté.
  2. Blanching helps to avoid overcooking.  You can keep a close eye on them so that they don’t turn to mush.
  3. If the fiddleheads are slightly bitter, the water will draw out the bitterness – you leave it behind in the cooking pot.

What else can one do with a fiddlehead fern?

Pickle it!

My recipe for Pickled Fiddlehead Ferns, a simple method with the unexpected zing of Szechwan peppercorn, can be found in the Spring 2011 issue of Edible Portland Magazine.

It makes a zippy condiment to roast or smoked pork, or a Ploughman’s Lunch or charcuterie plate.  Put some pickles out with appetizers or hors d’oeuvres, or use them to garnish a cheese plate.

Ploughman’s Lunch

Dip fiddleheads in tempura batter and fry them to serve alongside a ponzu dipping sauce with this recipe from Pacific Feast: a Cook’s Guide to West Coast Foraging & Cuisine.

Fiddleheads are very popular in Korea, where they are used fresh and green, or dried (called kosari, the dried fiddleheads are brown in color), in dishes such as bibimbap (a rice and vegetable dish) and yuk gae jang (spicy beef and vegetable soup).

Last spring, a market shopper introduced me to a strange but intriguing recipe for  Fiddlehead and Egg Lemon Soup from The New York Times Natural Foods Cookbook, by Jean Hewitt, published in 1971.  I haven’t tried it yet, but I plan to…I’ll let you know how it turns out!  I’ve included the recipe below.

Find fiddleheads from foragers at the Farmers Market, or forage your own, then invite your friends to feast on this whimsical spring vegetable.

Wild Fiddlehead Fern and Mushroom Sauté
serves 2

2 oz. extra virgin olive oil
half a small onion, chopped
2-3 strips of bacon (optional)
2 large garlic cloves, minced
6-8 oz. assorted fresh mushrooms, cleaned and cut to desired size
1 Tbsp. butter, if desired
salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
a small handful of fiddlehead ferns (about 20 pieces)

Bring a small pot of water to a boil.  

Meanwhile, in a skillet set over a medium flame, heat the olive oil.  Add the onions, and bacon if using, and cook, stirring often, until the bacon has rendered its fat and is beginning to brown, and the onions are softened and golden.  Stir in the garlic.  Cook for another minute and add the butter if using.  Add the mushrooms.  Cook, stirring often, until the mushrooms are fully cooked.  Season all with salt and pepper.

When the mushroom and onion mixture is nearly ready, season the boiling water with salt.  Add the fiddlehead ferns to the pot and cook for 2-3 minutes, or until they are tender.  Remove the fiddleheads with a strainer or slotted spoon and add them to the mushroom sauté.  Toss together, adjust seasonings, and serve.

Egg and Lemon Soup with Fiddleheads
From the NY Times Natural Foods Cookbook by Jean Hewitt 1971
Yield:  6 servings

1 1/2 cups washed fresh fiddleheads
8 cups boiling home-made chicken broth
4 eggs, beaten until frothy
1/2 cup lemon juice

Place the fiddleheads in a saucepan and add one cup of the broth.  Cover and simmer 5 minutes.

Meanwhile, beat the eggs, gradually adding the lemon juice.  Add a cup or so of the remaining hot broth to the egg-lemon mixture, mixing well.  Return to bulk of broth in saucepan.

Heat, stirring, until mixture just thickens, but do not allow to boil.  Drain the fiddleheads and add to the soup.  Serve immediately.


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About Kathryn LaSusa Yeomans

By offering Sage Culinary Advice, The Farmer's Feast assists Farmers' Market shoppers in making the most of their purchases, and helps vendors realize the culinary possibilities of their products. We create culinary education programs at Farmers' Markets. Through food preparation and cooking demonstrations, recipes focusing on technique, samples, stories and free advice, we're encouraging people to cook more often, from scratch, with market-fresh ingredients. Our goal? To cultivate domestic culinary arts. Once you've tasted the Farmer's Feast - glistening local produce, pastured meats, artisan cheese, wild seafood, rich nuts, grains and legumes - and see how easy cooking this bounty can be, you'll be hungry for fresh. Visit The Farmer's Feast on Facebook / E-mail wildeats@msn.com
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13 Responses to Fiddlehead Ferns

  1. Emily says:

    So are you NOT boiling your fiddle heads for the recommended 10 minutes prior to consuming? University of Maine and a few others say that 10 minutes of boiling is required to ensure that fiddle heads are safe to consume. I have found in searching recipes a lot of them don’t seem to follow this 10 minute boiling advice. Boiling for 10 minutes has left my filddleheads a but soggy but I obviously don’t want to risk consuming un-safe food.

    Please clarify: 10 minutes of boiling or not?

    • I certainly would not boil fiddleheads for 10 minutes as this would surely result in a mushy, overcooked vegetable that no one would want to eat! At the Farmers’ Market, I liken the texture & cooking method to that of boiled asparagus – that they are done when tender but not mushy, & that they will go from cooked to overcooked within a short window of time, so keep an eye on them & check them often after a minute or so.

      The reason some suggest the long cooking time is because the fiddlehead fern contains enzymes that are indigestible, so may cause gastrointestinal upset if not fully cooked. The good news is that the enzymes are fairly fragile & easily destroyed by heat. The 10 minute cooking time may err on the cautious side…any enzymes along with much nutrition will likely be destroyed in that length of time! Think about recommendations for other foods – eggs “should” be cooked hard, beef well done, pork until 145 degrees F (now reduced from 160 degrees F, which was the prior recommendation). Lots of food recommendations lean toward the cautious side.

      While I do recommend cooking fiddleheads until tender, which should sufficiently destroy the indigestible enzyme present in the vegetable, it is ultimately up to you & your stomach to decide how much cooking is needed to make digesting fiddlehead ferns a pleasant experience. Some people have more tolerant systems than others. As for me, my system can be touchy, but I’ve eaten many fiddleheads cooked as I’ve described with fine results, as have lots of people I’ve recommended this technique. Hope this helps!

  2. c pike says:

    My neighbour and I both picked fiddleheads the same day in the same spot took them home and processed them for the freezer, Hers turned black when she removed them from the ice water bath, mine were fine, We repeated the picking next day and hers did the same thing again, our differences were she used water from a softener system and an aluminum pot, my water is not soft and I used a stainless pot. She did say that she has always had the soft water and used the aluminum pot with no previous problem, Have you any other ideas?

    • Hmmm…if you had not said that under the same circumstances your friend found success, I would immediately point to the aluminum pot and soft (acidic) water as the culprates. Aluminum pots (if they are not annodized) discolor when cooking with salt, and with the addition of acid (softer water), and will cause foods in them to discolor. Acid will cause green vegetables to brown, and at one point (pre-1990), chefs would sometimes use a trade secret of adding baking soda to vegetable blanching water to reduce the water’s acid level so that green vegetables keep their bright color. Of course baking soda also causes vegetables to leech their nutrients, so it is not recommended.

      Perhaps your friend cooked something acidic in the pot prior to cooking the fiddleheads? Perhaps she cooked too many at once and they either didn’t cook quickly enough or cool quickly enough? Perhaps they sat out in a warm place too long before cooking? Perhaps you had better luck in finding the fresher fiddleheads?

      I’ve had some other inquiries about blackening fiddleheads. See the comments below. Personally, I’ve never had this happen. Perhaps if I were in the kitchen with your friend I could pinpoint the problem, but from here, I can only guess!

  3. I processed my fiddleheads for freezing and lots of them turned partly brown? I tasted few of them before freezing them and they were ok still crisp like the green ones. Can you tell me what might of happened? I’ve done this many times before and never had this problem. Are they still good to eat?

    • Louise, see my response to the comment below by Esther. My only other thought is that it is a variety of fern that does not hold its green color when cooking (I don’t know what kind that would be – just a thought). Springwater Farm gathers & sells the ostrich fern, and I have never had that type turn brown. I think they may still be good to eat, as long as you are sure that they are an edible fern species, and they are not off-putting either in taste or texture.

  4. Esther Ingraham says:

    I processed 16 pounds of fiddleheads for freezing. After blanching them they turned very brown. Is this normal? The last ones i put in (which i did nothing different but followed the same procedure stayed greeen. Was wondering if you had any input on this. Thanks , Esther

    • Esther, I’ve never had this happen, but here are a few thoughts about what may have caused this to occur:
      *The fiddleheads were not thoroughly cleaned and had a lot of papery brown chaff still attached – this will cause the water to brown significantly, and will make the ferns brown.
      *Perhaps there was not an abundant amount of water in the blanching pot.
      *The ferns were cooked too slowly (too many added to the pot at once, taking too long to come to a boil, or too low a flame.
      *The ferns were not “shocked cold” by plunging them in ice water after cooking.
      *The ferns were old.
      *Salted water helps keep the color green.
      It is puzzling that one batch turned out vibrant, while the rest browned. Did the brown ferns taste like they should?
      Kathryn

      • BRIAN says:

        IF THE FIDDLEHEADS TURN DARK ARE THE STILL GOOD TO EAT. I SOAKED THEM IN HOT WATER OVER NITE THE WERE NICE AND GREEN TO START BUT IN THE MORNING THE WERE NOT. THANKS BRIAN

      • Brian,
        I’m pretty sure it was the hot water that caused the fiddleheads to turn dark – they are a crisp green vegetable. They don’t require overnight soaking, but if you were to do that, very cold water would be key. I have taken home fiddleheads that have sat out in the warm weather after picking and perked them up (just like you would salad greens or flowers) with a good soak in ice cold water.
        I wouldn’t want to eat them if they have turned dark from soaking overnight.

      • Norma from Springwater Farm adds:
        The water can turn dark, any fiddleheads that are dark inside
        the coil should be discarded. Soaking a fresh green fiddlehead in water
        should not turn the fern black. I wouldn’t want to eat a black
        fiddlehead.

  5. Mary Sue says:

    Thanks for the recipe and your samples at the Portland Farmers’ Market. It encouraged me to buy some fiddleheads and make them at home!

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