If the king of spring is asparagus, its queen is surely the fiddlehead of the ostrich fern (Matteuccia struthiopteris). Still all wrapped up in themselves, fiddleheads preside over their woodland empire, giving the royal nod to the beginning of spring.
Fiddlehead Fern Recipes
• Wild Spring Salad with Rhubarb Dressing
• Asparagus and Fiddleheads with Hazelnuts and Tarragon Vinaigrette
• Penne and Spring Greens with Lemon and Chive Vinaigrette
• Herbed New Potatoes with Fiddleheads and Bacon
• Fettucine and Fiddleheads in Thyme Vinaigrette
Ferns typically produce leafy fronds, which, when mature, produce dustlike spores. The sexual phase of a fern’s life cycle occurs not in a flower (it has no flowers) but in a separate, minute plant (gametophyte) that develops from a spore. In the presence of water, a sperm fertilizes an egg in the gametophyte, and the fertilized egg in turn develops into a plantlet that grows up into the plant most people recognize as a fern.
Of the estimated 12,000 species of ferns worldwide, most emerge in spring from an underground rhizome as a tightly coiled frond that resembles the scroll of a violin—the fiddlehead. Many ferns produce fiddleheads, but only those of the ostrich fern are reliably safe to eat (other kinds are known to be or suspected of being carcinogenic). This species likes filtered sunlight and rich wetlands: riversides and the edges of marshes and swamps. Thriving from as far south as Virginia to as far north as Newfoundland and southern Labrador, they extend westward across the northern states to Washington and British Columbia.
Learn to recognize an ostrich fern in the summer, when the vase-shaped clump of large, 6-foot-tall dark green fronds are unmistakable. Unbranched, toothed leaflets growing from each frond’s main stem make it look much like an ostrich plume. The same clump may also boast a few much smaller fertile fronds, which bear the spores. When you find a clump of ostrich fern, mark its location (the fronds die back when winter comes) so that you may return in the spring to feast on the fiddleheads.
In April or May, when the shadebushes are in bloom and the wild leeks are abundant in the woods, grab a pail and a sharp paring knife and head for the ostrich fern patch. Choosing fiddleheads that are less than 6 inches long, cut the stalks close to the rhizome and then trim them to within an inch or two of the “scroll.” Collect only where the fiddleheads are plentiful and take less than half the fronds in a clump to preserve the rhizomes’ energy reserves.
Keep fiddleheads cool and dry while transporting them home. They are best when prepared right before eating. If you must store them, do not wash but wrap them in a cotton or linen towel and keep them in the refrigerator’s crisper for no longer than two days.
If you must forage for fiddleheads at a specialty market, choose bright green, tightly coiled heads that are bouncy and firm; avoid yellowed specimens. The small heads are mildest and most tender.
Fiddleheads are covered with inedible, light brown papery scales. To remove them, rub the heads lightly between your hands or toss them in a tightly closed paper bag. Rinse them in cold water, then steam for 15 minutes or simmer in lightly salted water, covered, for 10 minutes or until tender. Adding 2 tablespoons of fresh lemon juice to the cooking or steaming water mellows the taste. Drain and serve immediately.
To have fiddleheads on hand when the two-week season is over, you may freeze them. Blanch cleaned and trimmed fiddleheads for 1 minute in a large pot of boiling water (use 1 quart of water per pound of fiddleheads). Drain and plunge into ice water; when cool, drain again, pat dry, pack in airtight containers, and freeze. You can alternatively freeze them on a baking sheet and then package themin freezer bags.
Tasting like a blend of asparagus, spinach, and wild mushrooms, fiddleheads are perfect alone or in spring soups, salads, and stir-fries. You may toss them with pasta, bake them in a quiche filling, or substitute them in recipes that call for green beans, artichoke hearts, or Brussels sprouts. Team fiddleheads with wild garlic or onions, feta cheese, and a light vinaigrette, or lightly steam and dress with butter, lemon, cream, or a sprinkling of Parmesan cheese. They also combine well with Asian flavors: drizzle on a little soy sauce and sprinkle with sesame seeds and grated fresh gingerroot. No matter how you choose to serve them, fiddleheads’ novelty and special flavor will give spring a regal welcome.
Pat Crocker of Hanover, Ontario, Canada, leads walks in which participants learn to identify and gather wild herbs, then prepare them for a gourmet lunch. Her latest cookbook, The Healing Herbs Cookbook (Robert Rose, 1999), features culinary and medicinal herbs in timely, tasty dishes.
• Brill, “Wildman” Steve, with Evelyn Dean. Identifying and Harvesting Edible and Medicinal Plants in Wild (and Not So Wild) Places. New York: Hearst Books, 1994.
• Gardon, Anne. The Wild Food Gourmet. Buffalo, New York: Firefly, 1998.
• Grieve, Mrs. M. A Modern Herbal. Vol. 1. 1931. Reprint, New York: Dover, 1978.
• Schneider, Elizabeth. Uncommon Fruits and Vegetables: A Common Sense Guide. New York: Harper and Row, 1986.
To order fresh fiddleheads, contact Dean and DeLuca Customer Assistance, 560 Broadway, New York, NY 10012; (800) 999-0306; deandeluca.com.