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.
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.
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.
- Blanching ensures that the fiddleheads cook evenly. This would be more difficult, though not impossible, if they are added directly to the sauté.
- Blanching helps to avoid overcooking. You can keep a close eye on them so that they don’t turn to mush.
- 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?
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.
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
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.