Ah, a walk in shady woods in spring. Varies little anywhere in north-eastern North America. Mother Nature decorates the tableau with unparalleled feng shui to engage all our senses. Underfoot is a springy carpet woven from years of fallen leaves and needles. The ceiling is speckled sky-blue and white, walls of fresh green unfurling leaves and ferns, earth tones galore. Wildflowers and butterflies add splashes of colour, myriad birdies and babbling brooks add a soothing sound track. A musty, heady amalgam of scents, decay, plus germination, cannot be duplicated in a spray.
For ever, folks have foraged for food in the woods. Often for gourmet treats like mushrooms, fungi, truffles, ginger, garlic, edible shoots, leaves and berries. Up here, certain types of fern yield the briefly-available true delicacy called the fiddlehead. These are rolled up, un-unfurled fronds of either the bracken or the ostrich fern, looking a tad like the tops of stringed instruments we colloquially know as fiddles. These cute inch-long bright fern-green (what else!) nuggets are laboriously hand-picked in mid to late spring.
I am lucky to have ostrich ferns in my garden. Have been spied and chuckled at by neighbours as I bend over, plucking any emergent fiddleheads in early morning. Depending upon the weather, I gather a few a day, all I can find, for a couple of weeks. Wash them gently but thoroughly to remove bits of dirt or filmy protective brown stuff.
If I intend to use them the same day, terrific. If not, I prep and freeze them in small batches for future
use. For latter, I blanch briefly in boiling water, then plunge in cool water, drain and dry them on paper towel, then pop them in a zippered freezer bag. I add to my precious horde in usable batches when I can.
A couple of cooking methods are best to use soon after picking. Cook them in boiling water, akin to how you might asparagus or other delicate veggie. Never overcook as they will unfurl and appearance is everything! Dress them or not, again as you might asparagus. Or sauté them in a little butter. If from the freezer, thaw the par-cooked fiddleheads before use. I love them in quiche, or added at the last minute to pasta in white or rose sauce. Thus, they will remain furled and visible.
One must be sure of the type of fern involved as some varieties are carcinogenic or contain toxins (yikes!). Ask someone, check a book or website before foraging. As for the good stuff, I have read that they are a good source of vitamin C, potassium and all-important fibre. Urban foragers will find them at the grocer’s or farmer’s markets. Even the permitted safe varieties should be cooked, never eaten raw.
Fiddleheads are a tasty, fleetingly-available delicacy. A bit of toil to gather and prep. Fun right away or as a precious surprise from the freezer in a few months.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Since reading Meera’s article I’ve noticed fiddleheads appear in New York and San Francisco. See Below!
Whole Foods – NYC Bar Bambino – San Franicsco Seppia w/Fiddleheads – Eataly, NYC