Fiddlehead Ferns for the Pteridophobic
And it was on that shopping trip that I encountered the season’s first crop of fiddlehead ferns in the produce section, all coiled up and looking to be taken home.
According to the Field Guide to Produce, Fiddlehead ferns are the edible young fronds of the Ostrich Fern, so named for their “resemblance to the scroll of a violin (or fiddle) head.” While locally-foraged fiddleheads haven’t arrived at New York’s Greenmarkets quite yet, they should be coming soon. You can’t miss it when they do, as their brief (~2 week) arrival sets off a frenzy among the fashionable locavore chefs. A frenzy that has typically befuddled me as someone who suffers from Pteridophobia: a fear of ferns.
Mock me if you will, but I’ll have you know I am in very good company. Sigmund Freud reportedly had the same fear. It’s not so much the fern I’m afraid of as it is the fern’s skeevy underbelly, which is frequently dotted with rows of those repulsive black spores that give me the heebie jeebies something awful. In my single days, when the occasional suitor would send flowers to me at work, I’d force someone to remove all of the spore-infested fern leaves before I’d allow the arrangement in my office. My extreme aversion to ferns has, in the past, extended to fiddleheads by association, and prevented me from giving those unfurled little fern shoots a taste despite the insistence of people whose tastes I trust that they were, in fact, very delicious.
But as a self-designated cheerleader for the cause of trying new foods–particularly nutritious ones in season–I realized my fiddlehead avoidance rendered me a hypocrite. And so, I bought a bag of them and decided it was time to turn over a new…leaf.
All about Fiddleheads
Know thine enemy: I set about my research to learn everything I could about the alien coils sitting in my fridge, hoping to prepare myself with a preview of what they might taste like, how I should cook them, and what foods they might pair best with. So first, I consulted my handy dandy Flavor Bible (a very useful reference book if you’re cooking with a new ingredient), which listed the following “flavor affinities” under fiddlehead ferns:
fiddlehead ferns + butter + herbs + morel mushrooms + ramps
fiddlehead ferns + garlic + morel mushrooms + salmon
fiddlehead ferns + sesame oil and/or seeds + soy sauce
Hmmm. So it seemed like fiddleheads played nicely with all of the foods I already loved. How bad could they possibly be?
Indeed, the more I researched, the more disarmed I became. The word on the street was that fiddleheads would taste sorta like asparagus (and in fact, could be prepared exactly as you would prepare asparagus), would pair well with my favorite morel mushrooms, (as in this recipe for Fiddlehead Fern and Morel salad) and would also taste great with garlic, ramps, spring peas, cheese, bacon/pancetta, hollandaise sauce or paired with Asian flavors, as in a stir fry. So many options!
To select fiddleheads, the experts recommend choosing ones that are bright “jade” green, firm, tightly coiled and have only 1-2″ of stem past the coil. (Alternatively, you’ll need to trim longer stems prior to cooking). It is advised to avoid fiddleheads covered with too many fuzzy brown scales (the so-called paper chaff), though small amounts of it can be rubbed off with your hands. They are apparently best when eaten soon after harvest, but fiddlehead authorities concede that they can be stored under refrigeration for anywhere from 2-10 days (depending on when they were picked) if they’re tightly wrapped to prevent drying out.
To prepare fiddleheads, most sources recommend trimming the dark ends from their stems, soaking them in cold water to help clean them of any dirt/debris, and blanching them in boiling water to kill any bacteria hiding in those tight little coils (OK… that part created a mental image that set me back a little bit…) before proceeding to saute them with the accompanying ingredients of your choice. This seemed like prudent advise from a food safety perspective, so I thought I’d pass it along. Conversely, you can just boil them in salted water until fully cooked, about 3-5 minutes.
Fiddlehead Nutrition Facts
In a sign that your tax dollars are being well spent, the USDA has actually analyzed the nutritional composition of fiddlehead ferns and published it in its free, online database. That’s how I learned that a 3oz portion of raw fiddlehead ferns contains 34 calories, 5g of carbohydrate and 4.5g of protein (!). What’s more, it contains about 43% of your daily Vitamin C needs, about 25% of a woman’s daily Vitamin A needs (20% of a man’s), and about 7% of the daily value for iron (1.3mg). Of course, it is not recommended that you eat them raw; for one, they’ll taste bitter, and too many raw fiddleheads could cause stomach upset. And it’s not clear to me how much of that Vitamin C will in fact be leftover after the soaking and blanching.
The Verdict: What was I so scared of?
My first foray into fiddleheads was a fantastically delicious one. I settled on a simple and springy saute of ramps (a.k.a wild leeks, another early Spring cult favorite), sugar snap peas, shiitake mushrooms, blanched fiddleheads and thyme, and served it alongside a piece of grilled wild salmon and a simple dollop of polenta.
To make the veggies, I just sauteed sliced shiitakes in 1-2 tsps of butter (don’t judge me), with fresh-picked thyme from my herb garden and salt, until cooked. Then I set those aside and, in the same pan with 1-2 tsp olive oil, sauteed the sugar snap peas and ramps together until the snap peas were bright green and the ramps were soft and wilty. Right at the end, I added the blanched fiddleheads, seasoned the whole mess with salt, and cooked for 1-2 minutes more. Finally, I turned off the heat, mixed in the mushrooms, and served.
The fiddleheads were tender but not overly soft or mushy; the blanching did well to tame their reputed bitterness. They didn’t have a super-strong flavor–certainly not as asparagusy as I had expected–but were pleasant and spring-like and quite enjoyable to eat. I even went back for seconds. Sigmund Freud would have been so very horrified.Did you like this? If so, please bookmark it, RSS feed.