What is a Fiddlehead Fern?
Spring in northern parts of the United States may be slow to arrive, but one sure sign it’s here is the emergence of fiddlehead ferns. These spiral-shaped green plants most commonly grow in wet, forested areas of New England, the Great Lakes states, and the Pacific Northwest in April, May, and early June. They are also grown in other cooler-climate countries, including Canada, France, and Japan.
The young fronds of the ostrich fern (Matteuccia struthiopteris), fiddleheads look unmistakably like their namesake, the curved “head” of a fiddle. They grow on stalks, in clusters of up to a dozen, on the banks of rivers and streams. Smooth, concave green shoots emerge from the earth, sometimes even making a dramatic entrance through snow.
Left alone, these tightly wound leaves would continue to grow, unraveling and developing into a full-size fern with no promise of edibility. But it’s at this magic moment when the incipient coils’ tops — about one inch in diameter—must be plucked: Any further growth, and the plant would no longer be safe for consumption.
A boiled or steamed fiddlehead has the gentle crunch of an al dente asparagus stem and a flavor that’s somewhere between that of an artichoke, an asparagus spear, and a wax bean. Fiddleheads contain fiber and are a good source of vitamins C and A.
If you live in a region where fiddleheads are grown, you can forage for them, but be careful: Some varieties, such as bracken fern, are believed to be carcinogenic and may cause food poisoning (it’s also important to avoid eating fiddleheads that are raw or undercooked, as experts warn it could make you sick). Ostrich fern is the safest variety to eat; the easiest route to obtaining these quirky coils is to buy them from your friendly local farmer or grocer.
How to Prepare
Remove the paper-thin brown chaff covering coils, and submerge in cold water to remove any dirt. Boiling and steaming are the most common methods of cooking. To sauté, stir-fry, or bake fiddle- heads, some experts recommend you boil (for at least 15 minutes) or steam (for 10 to 12 minutes) first to remove bitterness and reduce the risk of illness.
How to Eat
Toss cooked fiddleheads with garlic and olive oil, and serve with pasta topped with grated Parmesan for a quick, hearty dinner (for even more flavor, add prosciutto, pancetta, or bacon). Pickling in vinegar or oil is another popular way to enjoy fiddleheads. Vermont Pickle (vermontpickle.com) sells garlicky, limited- edition batches of this treat each spring.