The first time I came across fiddlehead ferns was at our cabin in Cook Forest State Park in Pennsylvania. Alongside the cabin were these beautiful little fiddleheads that always reminded me of the coiled head on a mandolin. Sometimes they also looked like little Italian cookies, precisely coiled and baked, and eaten on special occasions. A fiddlehead fern is one of the most beautiful forms on our planet. If nature makes a more graceful form, I just can’t think of what it might be.
The edible fiddlehead fern is an early sign of spring. How lovely it is when they appear just as April cellars are reduced to the last grim pickled cabbages or beets, and the hunger is fierce for something of vibrant green that crunches between your teeth. These charming green spit curls emerge from the heart of the dormant winter fern. A circle of dead brown fronds lays as the shadow of last year’s verdant resident.
My dad’s mother was a forager who was always in the woods looking for wild mushrooms or picking dandelion greens along the roadside for her favorite spring dish. She taught me that Mother Nature provides us with some of the tastiest treats.
In the beginning, it seemed there was no clientele for wild foods, but when I began demonstrating how to cook these beauties at North Union Farmers Market, it inspired home cooks to put their creative juices to work. The fiddleheads brought into my kitchen are an exquisite ingredient. They are a clear proof of a wild, vibrant, and beautiful natural world far away from the hot windowless kitchen from which most of our great cuisine flows. When people eat these foraged wild foods, even on rare occasions, it deepens their appreciation of nature, and they become interested in learning more about the habitat of the wild foods.
What is a Fiddlehead?
The fiddlehead’s coiled green shoots appear on the barren forest floor and announce the change of season, but they are only around for a brief time. They come into season just before, or about the same time, as asparagus, but fiddleheads are gone before you can figure out what to do with them. This is one of the reasons the fiddlehead has a cult following among chefs.
The fiddlehead fern is not a species; rather, it represents the point of maturity of the plant. In the earliest stages, the frond remains curled in a spiral shape, close to the ground, about an inch or two inches high. The fronds unfurl as the fern emerges through the damp April soil. The fiddlehead, then, is the coiled frond of the fern that has been harvested at its youthful stage of growth. They have been a part of traditional diets in much of northern France since the Middle Ages, across Asia, and also among Native Americans for centuries.
Foraging for Fiddleheads
Fiddleheads are usually found in the lowland forests in damp shaded areas. The ostrich fern, the species most commonly affiliated with the word fiddlehead, is found in the eastern United States and thrives in moist shady bottomlands and stream banks. The lady fern, found in the western United States, is less discerning: it can be found in wet woodlands, open meadows, and above the timberline.
Look for large ostrich ferns, which are about four feet high, during the rest of the growing season, and return to those spots in early spring to find the fiddleheads. It is important to properly identify ostrich ferns, because other ferns are not edible. Look for bright green coils with thin, brown scales covering them that fall away as the frond unfurls. There is a deep U-shaped groove in the inside stem, which is distinctive to the ostrich fern.
However eager hungry hands are to pick these, thoughtful harvest methods are important. As the fern wakes from the winter dormancy, the six or seven first fiddleheads are what the plant has with which to rally back to life. Overharvesting fiddleheads from the same plant can exhaust the root’s nutrient reserve to the point of killing the plant. Usually two or three curls per season are your limit. Snap these off at the base, and walk away.
As with all foraging, do your research, check guides and foraging books to be certain you know what you are eating. Or let someone else do the foraging, and keep an eye out for them at your local farmers market in early spring. You might find these strange-looking, green quarter-sized, coiled vegetables. But don’t blink. Because before you can say “fiddleheads,” they’re gone.
How to Prepare Fiddleheads
The brown papery skin of the fiddleheads must be removed along with the dirt and detritus from the forest floor. Remove any stems extending from the coil before cooking. Place your fiddleheads in a colander, and rinse or spray them with cold water. Place them in a bowl of cold water, and let them sit for a few minutes. Return them to the colander to drain. This should allow the crevices to be thoroughly washed.
Fiddleheads must be fully cooked for best results, so it is best to blanch or boil them before sautéing or cooking in other preparations.
If properly washed and stored in a Ziploc bag, fiddleheads can be stored for a week in the refrigerator. If you want to freeze them, blanch and allow them to dry thoroughly, then place in a freezer bag or vacuum seal bag. Don’t overfill the bags. Press out all excess air if using plastic bags. Fiddleheads can last all year if properly frozen.
These little springtime forest treats contain omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids and a number of other vitamins. They are high in vitamin A, which is a powerful antioxidant, and also vitamin C. Fiddleheads are a good source of minerals and electrolytes, like potassium, iron, manganese, and copper. Most people agree that they taste the deep moist green of the forest. Their flavor is often described somewhere between that of asparagus, broccoli, and spinach.