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8 May

On the Trail of the Elusive Fiddlehead Fern

The 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).

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.

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. 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
  2. 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
  3. 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
  4. 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
  5. 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
  6. 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
  7. 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 sprint swamp foray each year 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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