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On the Trail of the Elusive Fiddlehead Fern

Posted By Mark Sisson On May 8, 2009 @ 9:17 am In Health,How To,Nutrition | 43 Comments

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 [7]

Top 10 Summer Vegetables [8]

Smart Fuel: Beets [9]


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