Growing up, fiddlehead ferns were a mysterious food that other people ate. People in Maine, for instance.
Then there were poets:
By Matthew Dickman
in the air
you can eat.
The very inner of the inner ear
in the breeze.
Last night my son dreamt
out of trees.
I had almost forgotten
that we were
The fiddlehead turns
on itself but only ever in love.
Green cinnamon roll,
a snake too small to hunt
Curled in like my son’s
fingers, his fists.
More beautiful than
a spider fern,
moldy tongue of a hippopotamus,
the eye of the forest.
And then, there were people in books. (Usually books about people in Maine).
In one novel, a lost girl survived her hunger by munching the curled greenery as she hiked through an endless forest. In others, it was long-limbed, somewhat artsy women who knew the secrets of the river bottom and would bring clusters of the curled tops home to their charming cottages in the woods.
But like mushrooms, it’s not just any frond curled like a violin’s scroll from just any fern. Some are not edible. Some are toxic. However, unlike mushrooms, it seems when people make foraging mistakes with ferns, they tend to get sick rather than facing possible death like with mushrooms mistakes.
Still, not a blunder anyone wants to make.
Unless someone in the know can teach you what ferns you can eat look like–apparently a u-shaped groove in the ostrich fern, and which ones to avoid–perhaps stick to the experts at your local market.
Here’s what Food and Wine Magazine has to say:
Where: Fiddleheads can be found in much of the United States as well as Europe, Asia and Canada: In fact, Tide Head, New Brunswick, calls itself the Fiddlehead Capital of the World.
What to look for: Small coils that are tightly wound up. Fiddleheads should be a vibrant bright green, unless they are still covered in their brown papery skin. The skin should come off easily when rubbed. Purchase or pick only ostrich fern fiddleheads, as they are the safest for consumption.
Flavor profile: Fiddleheads are sweet like asparagus, grassy and snappy like a great green bean, with a touch of broccoli stem.
Health benefits: Rich in potassium, iron, antioxidants and omega-3 fatty acids, fiddleheads are fantastically healthy.
How to eat them: Because ostrich ferns contain a trace amount of a toxin, you should never eat them raw. (Not that you would want to—they are quite bitter when raw.) Cook them for at least 5 minutes. First, prep the fiddleheads by rinsing them and rubbing off any papery brown skin. Then they can be steamed, braised, sautéed, roasted or pickled (after blanching).
Basically, you want to treat fiddleheads like you do asparagus. But for our classic recipe, let’s add some eggs and goat cheese. In the words of writer Catherine Johnson:
Yes, ferns just love to celebrate
All things glorious, green and new.
Until they wind up on your plate
In a frittata made for two.
Fiddlehead Frittata with Bacon and Chevre- adapted from Salt in My Coffee
- 1 lb organic red potatoes, chopped
- 12 ounces fiddleheads, cleaned
- 4 shallots (or one medium onion)
- 12 large eggs (or 10 duck eggs)
- 4 slices thick-cut turkey bacon, cooked and crumbled
- 8 ounces chopped or shredded cheddar cheese
- 4 ounces crumbled chevre
- olive oil, butter, or bacon fat for frying
- Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.
- In a deep cast iron pan, saute fiddleheads, chopped potatoes, and diced shallots, in a generous amount of butter, olive oil, or bacon fat. Cook over medium-low heat until fiddleheads are fiddleheads and potatoes are tender, and shallots are getting translucent – about 15-20 minutes.
- Whisk together eggs and cheese in a large bowl, then add to the pan with the fiddlehead mixture. If you’d like to skip dirtying a bowl, just add the cheese and eggs directly to the pan, mixing vigorously as you crack in each egg.
- Stir everything well so that it’s thoroughly mixed, then put the whole thing in the oven. Bake until the center is set, and the frittata is golden brown – about 35 minutes.
- Cool slightly, and serve.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to paint a landscape in my charming cottage and then go foraging for fiddleheads.