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Serving up health and fitness insights (daily, of course) with a side of irreverence.
8 May

On the Trail of the Elusive Fiddlehead Fern

2ynrl78The fleeting fiddlehead fern season is upon us, readers. All across the country, gourmands are eagerly descending upon farmer’s markets, food co-ops, and premium grocers in search of the slightly fuzzy, furled fern tips that taste a bit like asparagus. Cooked properly, the fiddlehead fern is bright green and tender, with a nice crisp bite.

Their name comes from the fact that the tightly coiled ferns resemble the curled end of a fiddle or a violin. Like their namesake, good fiddlehead ferns are expensive, stemming from the high production costs. Fiddlehead ferns are wild-harvested, mostly in the northeastern United States; they’re foraged for, rather than cultivated, and the expansive selection of similar-looking (yet inedible) wild ferns make proper foraging a difficult task requiring expertise. What you want is the ostrich fern tips, but what the inexperienced fern forager might come across is the nearly identical Bracken Fern, which is carcinogenic. So, seeing as how I neither live in the northeast nor do I have access to an “Edible Fern Field Guide,” I figured I’d just buy the ferns at a store. Grok would have disapproved, but whatever.

It turned out to be quite a task. Fiddlehead ferns are only available in any appreciable amount for two to three weeks per year. Before that, the coils haven’t developed yet, and after, the coils have already begun unfurling. A fiddlehead fern must be picked at exactly the right moment. Their quality also degrades quicker than most vegetables, making finding a good fiddlehead fern – especially in a faroff land like Southern California – pretty tough. I went to several farmer’s markets, even one stretching a few Santa Monica blocks that catered to chefs, and found nothing but blank stares. The local Trader Joe’s “had them last year,” but they were dry this year. Finally, having called a few Whole Foods, I found one that had some in stock. I rushed over, worried that I might have to fight for the last few scraps (but happy that I’d be redeemed in Grok’s eyes).

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Luckily, there were two huge bins of fiddlehead ferns waiting for me. No resource war required. The quality wasn’t the greatest, certainly not as green or fresh as the ones I remembered eating in New England. Still, these were definitely fiddleheads, and I spent about fifteen minutes picking out the best ones of the bunch.

That reminds me: when you’re choosing fiddleheads, you absolutely want to exert some quality control over the proceedings. These things are expensive – I paid $19.99 per pound – and you should get your money’s worth. The closer you get to the region in which they’re picked, the less distance they have to travel, and the price gets commensurably lower. I was about as far away from the northeast as you could get and still be in the US, so I wasn’t too surprised at the price.

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Look for tight coils and a bright, deep green color. Think compact and healthy. You’ll pretty much know it when you see it; just use your innate Grok senses. It’s best to cook them the same day you get them, but they’ll stay reasonably well covered in the fridge (although they will lose flavor rather quickly). Before you do, though, rinse them in cold water several times. Rub them lightly to get all the brown bits off. Do a few rinses until the water runs clear, then cut off any stems longer than two inches (the longer the stem, the more bitter it is).

The basic way to cook fiddleheads is to first blanch and then saute them. Boil some water. Once it’s roiling, toss in your ferns. Let the water return to a boil and set a timer for four minutes. Meanwhile, prepare an ice water bath. After four minutes of roiliing boiling, dunk your ferns into the ice bath. Blanching like this will get the cooking process started without giving up the attractive green color.

Dry your ferns and then toss into a pan with some butter or other Primal fat. Lightly fry them over medium heat for another four to five minutes, stirring occasionally. Keep sampling them as you approach the end; if you don’t cook them long enough, they’ll be bitter, but if you cook them for too long, they’ll be mealy. Once they’re ready, plate them and add a bit of sea salt and ground pepper. Maybe a squeeze of lemon, too. You can enjoy them as is, perhaps alongside some lamb or steak, or you can use them as a larger part of another recipe. In fact, you can usually use fiddlehead ferns in any recipe that calls for asparagus. Experiment with them, but quickly! Fiddlehead fern season is almost over.

I’ll be posting a recipe tomorrow. In the meantime, does anyone else have any experience with fiddlehead ferns?

Further Reading:

Top 10 Spring Vegetables

Top 10 Summer Vegetables

Smart Fuel: Beets

You want comments? We got comments:

Imagine you’re George Clooney. Take a moment to admire your grooming and wit. Okay, now imagine someone walks up to you and asks, “What’s your name?” You say, “I’m George Clooney.” Or maybe you say, “I’m the Clooninator!” You don’t say “I’m George of George Clooney Sells Movies Blog” and you certainly don’t say, “I’m Clooney Weight Loss Plan”. So while spam is technically meat, it ain’t anywhere near Primal. Please nickname yourself something your friends would call you.

  1. I live in Atlantic Canada which is one place they grow in abundance. We get them for about $3 a pound on the side of the road. If I were ambitious enough, I could go out to my in-law’s and probably find some on their land, but since I’m not sure which fern I’d be getting I’ve always left it to other brighter people.

    I thought it would be worth mentioning that if Fiddle heads are uncooked, you CAN get food poisoning from them. I’m not sure how or why, but it’s happened to me on a couple occasions when I first out on my own and tried cooking them without my mother’s supervision (go figure).

    In any case, these are DELICIOUS in a bath of butter. They’re probably one of my favorites, even with the food poisoning experiences.

    Christine Crain wrote on May 8th, 2009
  2. Mark- so much for eating locally ;)
    I understand totally though – sometimes you just have to have a little East Coast seasonal goodness. I don’t blame you one bit!
    Fiddleheads are great with ramps, another local specialty that crops up this time of year.
    I just bought a pound of fiddleheads at my local farmers market earlier this week for $3.50/lb (but I’m in NYC). I’ve been steaming them, then tossing into an ice bath to halt the cooking process. Finished with fresh local sauteed garlic & butter, they are divine! Also wonderful with a little primal vice (raw milk gouda cheese) & local eggs in an omelet. Or tossed into a salad.

    Marci wrote on May 8th, 2009
  3. Ah, good ‘ol New England. My in-laws used to pick and enjoy fiddleheads back in the day. I think they enjoyed it many ways, but a favorite was a fiddlehead stew.

    John Sifferman wrote on May 8th, 2009
  4. Never heard of them. Sounds delicious, but at $20/lb. it will probably be a while.

    Oh well. I can’t convince the kids that asparagus actually tastes good so I probably wouldn’t have much better luck with ferns.

    Greg at Live Fit wrote on May 8th, 2009
  5. In southern Ontario there has been a guy successfully farming them for the last few years. Although, I believe he still had to run a pretty wild grown farm to do it, not sure how.
    There was an article on him last spring.

    tammy wrote on May 8th, 2009
  6. Here’s a link to an article about the farming operation that Tammy mentioned : http://www.edibletoronto.com/content/pages/articles/spr09/whatsInSeason.pdf

    Krista wrote on May 8th, 2009
  7. And from the article re: storing fiddleheads at home…
    Since fiddleheads like wet, cool conditions,
    the best way to store them fresh at home is in a container of water in the
    fridge. If the water is changed every few days, the fiddleheads will last
    a month. When ready to eat, just trim the ends and prepare in your
    favourite recipe.

    Krista wrote on May 8th, 2009
  8. Yummy – I especially like them steamed with a splash of vinegar. Oh and I live in Atlanitic Canada as well so they are availble at $1.99/ pound. I don’t think that I would pay $19.99/pound. — Sorry Mark, but thats Crazy.

    MDS wrote on May 8th, 2009
  9. doh! so THAT’s what i can do with those ferns that are taking over the garden. too bad they’ve already leafed out now… maybe next year.

    Jennifer wrote on May 8th, 2009
  10. Never tried them – might have to on my next trip to the east coast. Thanks for always making sure us readers know there are a lot of options out there when going Primal!

    Holly wrote on May 8th, 2009
  11. Mark, I’m an Atlantic Canadian as well and I remember fiddleheads as a child. Another local delicacy was Samphire Greens. They are a marsh grass that is common in the area, and also in the UK. I guess they are best steamed but we used to just pick them and eat them raw.

    http://www.farmersmarketreport.com/2005/08/samphire-greens.asp

    Stu wrote on May 8th, 2009
  12. I’m in Vermont and my in-laws have a patch of ostrich ferns in their yard that we pick from every year. I see them in stores for about $3.99/lb.

    I like them sauteed in butter or olive oil with just a little salt, and maybe some chopped walnuts thrown in at the end as well. :)

    Gayle wrote on May 8th, 2009
  13. I tried these myself the other week. So delicious! I also just simply sauteed them in a pan until they were slightly browned and tender with just a hint of a bite left. Flavored with garlic and fresh herbs, they were wonderful! Yum!

    Here’s the link to how I did it. http://www.thenourishinggourmet.com/2009/04/wild-garlicky-fiddlehead-ferns-my-answer-to-gmos.html

    Kimi @ The Nourishing Gourmet wrote on May 8th, 2009
  14. Growing up in upstate NY, my mom and a neighboring mom (both very interested in all facets of ferns) would take us kids out into the woods while they gathered fiddleheads. I loved the wood outings but didn’t appreciate the fiddleheads at the time (I doubt they wanted to share their bounty with us anyway). Who knew I’d later appreciate the hunter-gatherer philosophy so much!

    Anna wrote on May 10th, 2009
  15. I think in Ohio, we’re a little bit far to get really fresh ferns, but since they taste similar to asparagus, I’ll just stick with the asparagus still popping up in the corner of our garden.

    Katie wrote on May 11th, 2009
  16. I just got a huge batch from a friend, who picked them at his place — actually, now that I think about it, I’m not sure if it’s his place in Connecticut, where I am, or his place in Maine, where he was on vacation. In any case, he vacuum-packed them, and we’re going to eat them up tonight, prepared as you suggest.

    Thanks!
    Ellie

    Ellie wrote on May 19th, 2009
  17. If you like fiddleheads, please at least once try them with a bit of white vinegar (after you sautée and salt them).

    I’ve never gone back after trying them that way. It’s also a great way to eat asparagus.

    Justin wrote on May 19th, 2009
  18. I’m so glad I read this! There have been fiddleheads in the bin next to the green beans at my local store for a couple of weeks and I’ve wondered what they were. I live in Providence, RI, so it makes sense that we would have them. I’ll have to go pick some up before they’re gone.

    (Just listened to your interview on Dr. Fitness and the Fat Guy and thought I would check out your blog. Great information!)

    Kelly wrote on June 5th, 2009
  19. When i was in norther India, in a small village called Patlikuhl. Me and my friend go to pick up in himalaya hills, during peddlehead season, we find so many grown all over. It is all free. We bring it home and my mom cook, it is so delicious but since i moved to usa. I never get a chance to eat those.

    Lobsang wrote on July 8th, 2009
  20. Here in Maine where we eat locally, primally from the sea and streams and the fields and forests fiddle head season is dearly anticipated…along with every other season (except ‘mud’).

    There is a saying here we are all familiar with, “I could tell you where you can find fiddle heads, but if I did I’d have to kill you.”

    This goes with mushrooms also.

    Chris wrote on February 24th, 2011
    • I very much dislike mud season as well as black fly season! I am a Maineah transplant but have yet to have fiddle heads and have been very nervous about trying them. They seem to be a fairly cheap price at the store as well as on the side of road. I think I will have to get me some and just do it!

      darlene wrote on May 10th, 2012
  21. Mark, Great to see so much information on fiddlehead ferns! The recipe with bacon looks great. What I love about these ferns are the stories that everyone has to go along with them. We are a family run business out of Boston, and we sell fiddlehead ferns in 5# and 10# bags – we buy direct from the growers. Often when we take an order, we are told first about the person’s connection with them, their first taste, how they used to find htem in their back yard, etc. If you want to post our link, you may… Thanks, Andrea Ruma

    Andrea wrote on March 25th, 2011
  22. these wonderful tastes can also be found rather plentifully on the river-bed and along the flood planes of the pacific NW, i speak specifically of the area between the Olympic and Cascade mountain ranges, as well as the Olympic National Forest.

    akicita wrote on April 6th, 2011
  23. I fried these for a bit in oil, butter, garlic, salt & pepper, then pulled them out, dipped in flour, poured in a bunch more oil and sort of deep fried them like calamari. Yummy!

    RonW wrote on April 28th, 2011
  24. In Rockland, Maine there is a wonderful Japanese Restaurant, Suzuki’s that specializes in doing local foods with a Japanese twist…and it is all magnificent.
    But there fiddle heads are a true gift from heaven. We cook some up each season and the are fine (like shad roe is fine in season) but not great. Suzuki’s are great beyond description.
    Ask your local Japanese chef how she/he would prepare fiddle heads…I’m sure you can come up with something grand, yet simple.

    Chris wrote on April 29th, 2011
    • The Fiddle heads Goma-ae are simply fantastic as usual!

      Basically Goma-ae is a Sesame Dressing.
      These are not necessarily all that Kako
      uses for her masterpiece but it the starts:

      Here are the basic ingredients for Goma-ae…you can decide for yourself whether your Primal Disposition would allow you this delicacy…or if you are a Fiddle Head purist the same. I can handle it

      Ingredients:

      Fresh spinach
      2 tbsp miso* (soya bean paste)
      2 tbsp sugar
      2 tbsp ground sesame
      1 tbsp sake* (Japanese rice wine)

      Enjoy

      Chris wrote on May 18th, 2011
  25. $19.99 A POUND????? where do you LIVE? OH MY LORD.

    … $6/pound here in Vermont.

    Mairead wrote on April 30th, 2011
  26. Mark,
    Just have to mention fiddleheads are availble in the Pacific Northwest as well. During the short season I have found them at most of the local Seattle farmers markets, and the local Whole Foods.

    Brenda wrote on May 7th, 2011
  27. I live in eastern Ontario. We have some much fiddleheads here….

    lifang wrote on May 11th, 2011
  28. I am cooking mine up as we speak! Thanks for the recipes.

    Cheers

    Sara Corrigan wrote on May 18th, 2011
  29. i just cooked fiddleheads for the first time- it was good.boil for 4 min,put in ice water than cook in butter,garlic,mushrooms,green onions for about 5 minutes. serve on buttered toast with fresh tomatoes and fresh parm cheese on top

    dorothy tyler wrote on June 2nd, 2011
  30. I tend to eat late..I know I will try to change that, but I had a “few’ fiddle heads, ($10.00lb here in the state of mass.) following the recepie above, plus other veggeies..yummy and not bad for a late meal, where I usually will have beef…etc.

    cool looking site, will return and look around more!

    mary wrote on June 7th, 2011
  31. i pick every year in maine sell thousands and eat alot of them there delicous if anyone needs bulk let me know

    jeremy violette wrote on April 13th, 2012
  32. Just saw them at a local co op market (Minneapolis area) for $15.99/pound. I bought maybe 10 of them to give them at try. We went on a nature walk a couple of weekends ago and saw Fiddleheads growing all over the place, next to the trail. Although I don’t know if those are the poisonous ones or not. And being regional parkland, would leave them alone from that standpoint as well. I bought them but had no idea how to prepare. So thanks for the tips everybody! My 6 year old is looking forward to trying them this evening. Interesting that they taste similar to asparagus. She likes asparagus, so maybe will like the Fiddleheads.

    Nancy wrote on April 20th, 2012
  33. I’m here in the Pacific Northwest, where i did get to eat fiddlehead ferns once in a very fine restaurant (in the PNW). So just over the past couple days, i was camping in the woods and i saw some “fiddleheads” (unfurled fronds) on some sword ferns here. I gathered some, thinking i’d look up how to cook them–but then i see they’re supposed to be ostrich ferns from New England. Two questions: 1) Are the coiled, young fronds of sword ferns edible, and 2) Do you cook them the same way?

    Anya wrote on May 4th, 2012
  34. Just a warning that the suggested cooking times and methods are not recommended. Fiddleheads should be boiled at a simmer for about 15 minutes or steamed for about 12. This is longer than we tend to cook vegetables these days, but necessary to prevent bad bouts of food illness. Don’t ever eat them raw. Sauteing alone is not adequate either; boil or steam first and then saute if you must.

    Morag wrote on May 12th, 2012
  35. Hi everyone
    I read all of comments very interesting where to find and prices and how to cook. Yesterday, I bought fiddle heads from Fresh Co. From Windsor, Ontario. The price costs me 5.99 a pound. I think it’s sort expensive. I would love to try something new food. I never seen fiddle head before. It was new to me. Decide buy them and try them. I image it might be tastes good. I am going to cook chicken breast with boiling fiddle heads then add my most favorite garlic and olive oil after cook. And have salad I need to build up my engery and lose some of weights. I am going to try them soon. Thank you for sharing informations. Smile

    Margaret wrote on June 15th, 2012
  36. My daughter and I had our introduction to fiddlehead ferns in Bhutan. What a treat! They were sauted in butter and served with scalloped potatoes. I was thrilled to see them at Wholefoods in Denver this week. Annette

    Annette wrote on June 19th, 2012
  37. I used to spend time in northern Maine and grew to love both fresh and canned fiddleheads available there. Now I live in Seattle, and have found that they are very hard to come by. However, I did find some the other day at Whole Foods, packed fresh in a small, clear plastic container. They came from Oregon. Brought them home and cooked them immediately, first blanching, and then sauteeing them in butter. But I was very disappointed because they were quite bitter and didn’t have that sweet, earthy, unique taste I remembered. My wife couldn’t even finish hers. Any idea as to what might be the problem?

    Wayne Johnson wrote on May 20th, 2013
  38. Just been reading about fiddleheads. I have a bunch frozen fiddlehead from last Spring. Time to use them up because, some day all this snow and sub-artic co!d will end. Pick them yourself or buy by the roadside. Soak in cold water swishing around to loosen brown papery part of fern. If picked over a day earlier, trim a tiny bit from the end of each so that the whole fern is green. I parboil them for about 5-10 minutes then bathe in ice water. Mainers traditionally eat them with brown cider vinegar, which is good. But, fiddlehead have a delicate green flavor, much lighter than asparagus. They pair well with mushrooms (especially the giant orange chanterelles I collect in the woods). I particularly enjoy them sauteed in a light virgin olive oil with slivers of shallots and generously sliced chanterelles. I reccommend pan-fried trout (caught from any one of the nearby lakes or ponds). Yum! Spring comes late here in Maine. Sooner or later the snow will end and start to melt. The ice will come off the lakes. Spring will come.

    Kathy Marciarille wrote on March 17th, 2014
  39. Just came back from a walk along the river where I harvested about 8 pounds worth, here in Vermont. Some are already past, some are just getting started, depending on the microclimate. The stems have a groove in them, making them u-shaped when you cut them. One correction to your post, they are not fuzzy at all. They are smooth and green, with brown papery husks clinging to them here and there. If you are harvesting, make sure to only take one or two heads from each plant, and not to cut from a plant that someone else has already harvested from–that way we can harvest sustainably and leave healthy plants for the future.
    I recommend boiling them first, and then sauteeing, rather than steaming, as that will prevent the stomach upset that some people seem to experience from them. They are very tasty with butter and hot sauce on top. Prices here currently about $8 per pound in grocery stores.

    Didi Pershouse wrote on May 15th, 2014
  40. I can’t believe you have an article on fiddleheads! I thought they were just too obscure for people to know about. I live in Northern British Columbia, out in the boonies, and eagerly look forward to my first swamp foray to pick fiddleheads.

    Got home with a couple of bags, and off to clean them!

    Lucia Papp wrote on May 17th, 2014

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