It wouldn’t be Spring in Maine without eating at least a couple “batches” of fiddleheads. This has been a record winter for snow and the melt has been gentle and slow until a few days ago when it rained for twenty-four solid hours! Since fiddleheads grow along the banks of waterways they literally disappeared until the waters receded. Interesting vegetable, huh?
There are two varieties of ferns that are most desirable to eat, the cinnamon fern, a smaller more compact variety, which arrives first, and then the more prized ostrich fern, larger in size and more elegant in flavor. Fiddlehead ferns have a flavor like nothing else. They taste something like the fresh tips of asparagus with the texture of okra. You either like it immediately or you don’t. There is no middle ground or negotiation with this vegetable. Period.
The banks of rivers are covered with people picking huge bags and baskets of this spring delight in large quantities. My sister and I call them the stolen vegetable. No one ever picks their own from their land; it is always people sneaking onto your land and wiping out the fiddlehead crop till next year.
There are two schools of preparation, which give very different results, like cooking squid: cook it swiftly or cook it long and slow. I know -- which one do I prefer?
Having eaten fiddlehead since birth there never existed any of this “eating fiddleheads al dente”, but, true confession, I really like the slow method. Diced salt pork (before pancetta became mainstream), rough chopped onions, washed and cleaned fiddleheads, cooked slowly for at least an hour. That is pure heaven! No, they don’t get mushy, they get sweeter and sweeter as they slowly cook.
The ferns are cut with a knife riverside as the fern frond is just breaking/popping its little head out. There is a brown sheath that is partially covering the fern. This has to be removed before cooking as it imparts a real bitterness and turns the cooking water a very tannic brown, like over steeped tea. I fill the sink with cold water and agitate the ferns and wait for all the wispy brown covers to get waterlogged and fall to the bottom of the sink.
Next I cover them with water in a large uncovered pot and gradually bring them to a boil. Boil for 2-3 minutes until they turn a bright “spring green” and then dump the first cooking water. Now you can finish cooking them any way you like for another 7 or 8 minutes. Cooking twice will ensure a sweet not bitter fiddlehead and then use your imagination to finish cooking your long awaited, foraged, first vegetable feast of the Spring.
Serve it with a cold salad with an assertive vinaigrette as a side dish to a nice spring hard shell lobster or even make a risotto with coarsely chopped fiddleheads and aged Gouda cheese. However you cook them they are well worth the time and effort. The season lasts for about thirty days as the “pickers” chase the season from the southern part of our state to the Northern border with Canada. The fiddlehead pickers then all transform into “wild mushroom foragers” . . . Now that is evolution!
Brenda Athanus runs a small gourmet food shop in Belgrade Lakes, Maine with her sister Tanya called the Green Spot.
The Green Spot
by Nancy Ellison