Wednesday, May 16, 2012

It’s time for fiddleheads

One of our favorite spring delicacies comes in late April or early May up here north of the forty-ninth. Yes, they appear in your market (if you shop at the right ones) and you could grow them on your property (they’re perennial, too), but there’s something special about going out into the forest to a spot that only you know and fill up a plastic bag or two. They do keep for awhile, but they’re at their best when freshest, so don’t take more than you will eat in a week or so.

I’m of course speaking of fiddleheads, the not-yet-unrolled fronds of ferns, and it’s a vegetable that is not as well known as its more traditional relative, asparagus, which is too bad. I think they’re far more tasty. I’ll let all of you who don’t know guess why these treats are called fiddleheads.

We hadn’t heard of them before we moved to Canada. A bushel basket appeared at the food co-op we belonged to in Montreal, and I had no idea what they were. A few questions later, I left with a paper bags holding enough for four servings. At least I thought they were enough. Once we’d cooked them up and served them, I realized we should have bought twice as many.

I will say right off the bat that they can have a rather strong taste as far as some feel, but my guess is that the ones eaten that tasted strong were older. Eaten the day they’ve been picked, they taste and smell of the forest, sort of reminiscent of asparagus, but better. With a touch of butter, salt and pepper, they can be quite a magical addition to a meal.

So, off into the forest: what do you look for? Well, we scoped out our secret patch later in a summer when the fronds were fully grown. What you’re looking for are ostrich ferns. They have a rounded top to the fronds – as opposed to bracken, which has a pointy top. I have heard that you can eat bracken fiddleheads, but I’ve also heard that they might have something in them that won’t agree with people – especially if you consume a lot or they’re undercooked. Other species of fern that are edible as fiddleheads are Cinnamon (or buckhorn) fern, and royal fern. There are other strains that are picked as fiddleheads but these are the most common in eastern North America. If you do see them fresh at a market, be prepared to pay somewhat dearly for them.

You’ve tramped through the forest to your special spot a few weeks after all the snow has disappeared (it will probably be moist, so wear some rubber boots). All you need is a sharp, short bladed knife. One with a curved blade works best. The fiddleheads will be in clumps sometimes with seven to a plant. Cut them off close to the ground. But don’t take too many! If you just lop off everything, the plant won’t recover, and that would be a shame. I was told by someone in the know that it’s okay to take up to three.

Special warning! Take only those fronds that have not yet unrolled very much, the tighter the better. As the fronds unroll, they produce a toxin that can make you pretty ill. You should also not eat them raw. Don’t think they’re all that dangerous, though. If you were to eat leaves or stems of tomato plants, they could kill you.

Back at home, you will need to remove the brittle brown covering. This is most easily done in the sink. Just dump them in, fill it with cold water and rub the fronds a bit and it will come off. If the spot where the stem was cut turns a bit brown, just cut it off with a knife.

How do cook them? We like to just steam them, although they can be boiled (less flavor to my mind) or roasted (the French like them this way, apparently). We steam them for ten to twelve minutes. I’ve seen recipes that call for twenty minutes of steaming. I suppose if you’re cooking a quart of them, you might want to increase the time a bit, but a pint cooked for twenty minutes would be a sin. Discard the water they’re cooking in or over. You can find other recipes that call for baking, sautéing and frying, but it’s a good idea to give them a quick steam (7-10 minutes before continuing cooking.

Just before serving, we toss them in a bit of butter with a good squeeze of fresh lemon. Basically, you can cook and serve them any way you would asparagus.

But you have to move quickly! While they are available frozen or canned, fresh is certainly the best. If you want to go to the trouble of picking your own, you will have a very memorable treat – for free.

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