Fantastic Fiddleheads and Where To Find Them
Spring is the season for ephemerals, plants that pop up for a few short weeks then disappear for another year. Trout lily, toothwort, bloodroot, ramps, and trillium are examples of plants that disappear once warmer weather hits. Foragers and hikers are sure to find those plants growing throughout forests in April and early May, and along with them they’ll likely find fiddleheads. While fiddleheads aren’t truly an ephemeral, the plant continues to grow throughout the summer, it’s only edible for a very short period of time in early spring and during that period it makes a delicious and versatile spring treat.
Many people are familiar with fiddleheads or “fiddlehead ferns”, but that term is actually misleading. The word “fiddlehead” only refers to the tightly curled, emerging stem of a fern, and seeing as there are hundreds of ferns that grow across the northeast, there are hundreds of different kinds of fiddleheads, and most of them are not edible. They are gorgeous however, and I’ve enjoyed wandering through swamps and glens looking to spot new kinds of fiddleheads and appreciate their diversity. They come in a wide range of colors, sizes, textures, and shapes, which often make them look otherworldly. Seeing as ferns far predate other plants in Earth’s evolutionary timeline, they are otherworldly in a sense, a carryover from the prehistoric world. There is some disagreement amongst foragers as to whether or not some species are safe and wholesome to eat, but the one species that is generally recognized as safe by most sources is the ostrich fern.
With the wide range of ferns growing in forests and creek beds it would seem nearly impossible to pick out a single edible species from the abundance, but fortunately this isn’t the case. There are several distinguishing characteristics that set ostrich fern apart from all others, and once you’re familiar with them, they’re easy to pick out. First of these is color. Ostrich fern is a deep, vibrant green. It’s not brown, red, gray, or sage colored. Second is texture. Ostrich ferns are very smooth, there is no fuzz, no hair, no scales, and no dots on the stem or the curl. Third is shape. Ostrich ferns have a U shaped groove on the inside of the stem, much like a stalk of celery. Finally, ostrich ferns often have a brown papery coating around the curled part of the fiddlehead. It’s not uncommon for this to fall off as the fern is emerging however, although you can usually see it at the base of the plant if it has come off.
Ostrich ferns like to grow in places that receive ample moisture during the spring thaw. It’s not uncommon to find them growing alongside ramps on the edges of creek beds or in the floodplain of a creek or river. They also can grow in forests that have moist soil. Often individual ferns growing in the same area can be several days apart in their growth cycle, so looking for taller unfurled ferns can be an indicator to look more closely at the ground for young fiddleheads. The fiddleheads emerge from the root ball in clusters of 5-7 per plant. To ensure that the fern will continue to produce enough energy to thrive don’t harvest more than half of the fiddleheads from each of these clusters, and preferably only a couple from each. Only pick fiddleheads that still have a coiled head and that are no longer than 6”. Once the fern begins to unfurl it’s no longer edible. Some people trim the longer stems off, but I find these to be perfectly edible and leave them on.
When cooking with fiddleheads it’s important to cook them thoroughly. Most people have an adverse reaction to eating raw fiddleheads, so it’s commonly advised to boil them for ten minutes prior to using them in a recipe. Their flavor is fresh and green, a bit like a cross between asparagus and green beans. They pair very well with garlic, lemon, butter, and olive oil, and many people enjoy them prepared simply sautéed in butter and garlic after boiling. They also make an excellent addition to pasta, spring soups like avgolemono, or rice dishes. Make sure to wash your fiddleheads well before cooking them. The best way to wash them is to fill a large bowl with water, add the fiddleheads, and swish them around before lifting them out of the bowl. This will leave much of the brown papery layer behind, but removing all of it usually requires you to repeat this step several times.
One way that I enjoy fiddleheads is in a chilled salad with carrots, shiitake mushrooms, and a wonderful black vinegar and garlic vinaigrette adapted from Phoenix Claws and Jade Trees, Kian Lam Kho’s excellent treatise on Chinese cooking techniques. It’s best dressed just before eating, to retain the freshness of the vegetables, but they can be par-cooked and stored in the refrigerator for several days, ready to be dressed as needed. The dressing can also be made ahead and stored for up to a week in the refrigerator.