Fiddleheads

The wild forage vegetable that has become a rite of spring.

For all who love them a lot, those wild and woodsy fiddleheads are about ready to herald spring in their succulent jade green dresses. But just as the haunting melody played on its namesake soon fades away, these luscious first greens of spring will be but a memory within three or four weeks.

Fiddleheads are the unfurled fronds of the ostrich fern, a perennial plant indigenous to northeastern North America. They grow so prolifically in New Brunswick that their coiled shape has become a provincial symbol.  Watch for them from early May into June along a few riverbanks in Nova Scotia and PEI as well.

The first tender shoots start peeking out from moist soils after the spring flood waters have receded, and are a welcome sight to those who consider them a gastronomic delicacy. Often compared to asparagus in flavour, some aficionados deny the simile, saying the fiddlehead has an earthy flavour all its own. Nevertheless, a recipe that's good for asparagus will usually do as well for fiddleheads, although simple preparations are generally best.

If you pick your own, you'll have to rid them of their papery brown "overcoat". This can be easily done by rubbing the fiddleheads gently in a towel or using the cold setting of a hair dryer to blow the "chaff" away.  Trim the ends of the fiddleheads close to the coil, and wash in several changes of cold water, swishing them around gently to remove any remaining grit and chaff.  If buying from a supermarket, a large part of this work is already done for you, but a thorough washing and gentle handling are still necessary.

A word of caution: Like mushrooms and toadstools, there are several kinds of ferns, some of them not too friendly to tender tummies. If you've never foraged for fiddleheads before, it is wise to go with an experienced gatherer who can teach you to recognize right from wrong.  While both the edible ostrich fern and the inedible cinnamon fern have similar heads, for instance, the cinnamon fern can be identified by its covering of a pale white or creamy fuzz. Stay away from these.

Although it may be safer for the uninitiated to buy fiddleheads at the supermarket, one should not be intimidated into missing out on this delicious regional wild food.

Choose firm, tightly rolled sprouts, about 1-and-one-half inches (4 cm) in diameter and less than 2 inches (5 cm) in length. Refrigerate, unwashed, in a perforated plastic bag for up to four days, but the sooner you use them the better they are.

To freeze, clean thoroughly and blanch in a large pot of boiling water for 1 minute, starting the timing after the water has returned to a boil. Immediately ladle the drained fiddleheads into ice water, keeping the water as cold as possible by adding more ice cubes as needed. Drain well; place in a single layer on baking trays and quick-freeze. When frozen, transfer to freezer bags, remove excess air, and store in freezer for up to a year.

Some connoisseurs believe there is no better way to enjoy fiddleheads than simply pouring over them a lemon-butter glaze, made by combining one-quarter cup (50 mL) each of melted butter and fresh squeezed lemon juice. But if you have a good supply, you may also enjoy them in other ways, such as in a soup, a stir-fry, or as a topping for pasta.

And for dessert, try dipping them in melted chocolate and placing them on waxed paper in the refrigerator to set. Mmmmmm! Forget the strawberries.

Recipes featured in this article: