Fiddleheads

I grew up in Vermont eating fiddleheads and didn’t particularly care for them.  I didn’t appreciate the delicate flavor and rare seasonality of them or I suppose mostly, I didn’t appreciate the way my grandmother prepared them.  She was from the old school; vegetables were cooked until their consistency was that of mush.  The unfortunate fiddleheads were boiled to a grayish color then served to her squeamish grandchildren like slugs swimming in a soup of butter and milk. What I did enjoy however, was foraging for them; I would accompany my grandfather, long since retired from his life on the farm, down to the riverbank.  We wore rubber boots and our spring jackets and carried half bushel baskets by their wire handles. The banks of the Connecticut were slippery and the water was high, which added to the excitement of an outing with my grandfather.  We supervised the new growth almost daily until he pronounced the tiny shepard’s staffs ready to pick.  We would return with full baskets to oohs and aahs and the clucking approval of my grandmother.

When spring arrived, there was an abundance of fiddleheads, free for the picking and ready for harvest when they reached a mere inch or two from the crown of the mother plant. My frugal ancestors ate them everyday and cleaned countless more to be “put up” as pickles and pulled out to favor the winter table.

It wasn’t until years later that I discovered the pleasures of consuming fiddleheads. When trying to describe their flavor, many people lazily compare them to asparagus but fiddleheads are a truly unique vegetable.  Their flavor is mild-mannered and earthy; they are pleasurably crunchy with a nutty, oh so slightly bitter bite. Nearly all ferns have fiddleheads, but those of the ostrich fern are unlike any other. No other vegetable matches the curious form and delicious flavor of a fresh Fiddlehead.

Fiddleheads are the whorled sprouts of the Ostrich Fern before it has matured.  Snuggly enfolded in their tightly wound coils is an intricate pattern of tiny, delicate leaves waiting to unfurl. The plump spirals poke their bright heads into the sunshine on the first really warm days of spring ready to be snapped off between thumb and forefinger with the flick of a wrist into the awaiting bushel baskets of local foragers.

Fiddleheads flourish in woodlands and along the shady moist banks of rivers and streams.  Here in Vermont, they grow in great profusion. However, there are many ferns that resemble the ostrich fern that are not edible.  These impostors are considered to be at the worst carcinogenic and at the least to cause severe intestinal distress.   Therefore, I like to leave the gathering and identifying of my fiddleheads to a seasoned harvester.

If you do venture into the woodlands be sure you know what you’re looking for; select fiddleheads with a tightly wound coil and only an inch or two of stem growth.   The best fiddleheads are 1 to 1.5 inches in diameter. Keep in mind that fiddleheads are not cultivated, to maintain their sustainability, three sprouts per plant is the recommended “catch.”   Each plant produces only seven sprouts, over harvesting will kill the plant.  Following these guidelines the ferns will grow to 4 feet tall lush and thick as ever by mid summer.
The quarrel about how one ought to cook fiddleheads spans the generations from old timers to new gourmands, no one can seem to agree.  Some will argue that changing the water during boiling is de rigueur and reduces the bitterness and content of tannins and toxins.  I’ve never found fiddleheads to be unpleasantly bitter and if I thought they were toxic, I wouldn’t eat them.  I prefer my fiddleheads lightly cooked and have never had an issue.  However, if this makes you uneasy or causes your stomach to flop then you should prepare them to your comfort.

For me, if meal preparation becomes confusing or tedious, I just won’t do it.  My children will substantiate this.  I prefer a simple preparation and since I’ve never experienced a glut of fiddleheads (in my adult life that is) I haven’t felt it necessary to overcomplicate the preparation. Fiddleheads are best enjoyed at their simplest; boiled to crunchy tenderness then tossed with butter, salt and pepper.  If I’m feeling adventurous, I’ll add a splash of vinegar, whip up a hollandaise sauce, or sauté with some good bacon and a few mushrooms (the elusive morel if you can find it).  Serve this over buttered toast and you are sure to receive accolades from friends and family.

Fiddleheads are available in the market for only a few weeks in springtime.  I buy mine from the Putney Coop.  Kim keeps a good supply throughout the short season.  Use them fresh, soon after harvest and plan on cooking them the same day; they quickly loose their flavor. Fiddleheads are easy to prepare following a few simple guidelines.  With a sharp knife make a fresh cut leaving no more than 2 inches of stem. To remove any of the residual papery chaff, rub them gently between your palms.  This is best done outside since the chaff is very light and will flutter around your kitchen.  After the chaff is removed I like to soak my fiddleheads in a couple changes of cold salted water to remove grit and any unwanted inhabitants.   Drop them in boiling salted water for tens minutes or steam for twenty, spread in a thin layer in your steamer basket.  A good fiddleheads snaps crisply when raw and after a brief cooking.  Steamed, boiled, roasted or sautéed, fiddleheads are an excellent source of vitamins A & C.  Per cup they contain only 20 calories and have 2.75 grams of protein.  Any way you choose to eat them, fiddleheads are a true New Englander’s reward.

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