There’s a wealth of good eating hidden in the woods
BY HARRY MATTHEWS
A sure and delicious sign of spring is the fiddlehead fern. Whether you find them in your local grocery store, farmers market, or have the knowledge to wild-forage them yourself, those wonderfully green and tightly wrapped rounds of flavor will only be around for a short time so it’s best to eat them when you can find them.
What, you may ask, are fiddleheads? They’re the bright green spirals of new growth of the Ostrich Fern (Matteuccia struthiopteris) that one might come across pushing up through the leaf litter in many of our local wild places. The coil, which looks to many like the head of a fiddle (hence the name), is harvested in early spring to be used in many types of cooking preparations. And as it is only around for a short time, fiddleheads have become a highly prized ingredient amongst chefs, cooks, and everyday bon vivants (yours truly included). Not only do they taste great, but they are full of vitamins, highly nutritious, rich in antioxidants, and a great source of not only fiber but omega-3 as well.
There are some brave souls among us here in the Hudson Valley who like to wild-forage for their fiddleheads. Like foraging for mushrooms, however, this can be a very dangerous activity if you do not know what you are doing. Many of the ferns found throughout our area are highly toxic and can result in some very unpleasant reactions, from food-poisoning to dermatitis, lyme disease, and even possibly cancer. Get yourself a good guidebook, or better yet find an experienced guide that can teach you how to identify them correctly.
Two suggestions of helpful guidebooks would be The Forager’s Harvest by Samuel Thayer and/or A Field Guide to Edible Wild Plants by Lee Allen Peterson.
An easier way to ensure you can get your fiddleheads each year is to grow them. They are available at many local nurseries (Augustine Nursery, Catskill Native Nursery, Story’s Nursery, and so forth) and are quite easy to grow once established. An even easier way to obtain them is at your local farmers market, which not only keeps your money local, but supports our hard-working and tireless farmers… So many benefits! Also, many of our grocery stores (Adam’s, Mother Earth’s) will carry locally sourced fiddleheads for as long as they are around.
Now to get down to the real business of enjoying this delicious and healthy treat. Firstly, fiddleheads should not be eaten raw. You can still get sick if they are not prepared correctly, but preparing them correctly is easy to do. Most believe that fiddleheads need to be boiled or steamed for a minimum of from five to fifteen minutes before any further cooking is done. Sometimes I do that, sometimes I don’t, so I leave this step up to your discretion.
In researching this article I came across dozens of wonderful sounding recipes for fiddleheads. A few that stuck out included fiddlehead and shrimp curry, fiddlehead saffron soup, fiddlehead and camembert omelette, lemon rosemary risotto with fiddleheads and prawns, Thai or Sichuan fried fiddleheads, savory bread pudding with fiddleheads and wild mushrooms, and to make it totally local how about fiddlehead, nettle and morel salad with locally smoked trout. Okay, I’m getting hungry.
One of my favorite preparations is also one of the easiest: Fiddleheads in a Garlic Butter Sauce. Adjust amounts of ingredients for the amount of fiddleheads you are using. I’m not sure one can ever have too much butter, olive oil, garlic, or lemon.
salt and pepper to taste
Clean the fiddleheads and soak in cold water for 3 minutes. Boil the fiddleheads for 4-6 minutes, drain and set aside. In a cast-iron skillet heat the olive oil and and butter and sauté the garlic for one minute, making sure not to burn it. Add fiddleheads and sauté for another minute then remove the skillet from the heat and add the lemon juice, salt and pepper, and stir well. Serve over rice or pasta with freshly grated Asiago cheese and/or a poached egg.
Another wonderful and simple variation I do with this recipe is replace the olive oil and butter with soy sauce, sesame oil and sesame seeds. Or for a Thai spin on it try fish sauce, cilantro, and lime.
And that right there is the wonder of this simple local food… So many easy yet delicious possibilities from the humble coiled sprout of the ostrich fern. Happy eating!