For a short amount of time every spring, tiny green fiddleheads begin to unfurl in the wild, wet areas of the northeastern United States. A New England delicacy that is especially popular in the state of Maine, fiddlehead greens are actually young ostrich ferns whose tender, curled fronds offer an earthy, wild green vegetable taste that is quite unique.
Fiddleheads are harvested early in the spring season, before their heads are completely unfurled, in April, May and early June. Low to the ground, fiddleheads grow in wet areas beside rivers and other sources of water, and heading out to harvest the first fiddleheads is a seasonal ritual in some parts of the country. Mainers who live out of state often long for a taste of these bright green ferns, which are almost as big of a part of state identity as lobsters and blueberries.
High in antioxidants, iron and fiber, fiddleheads are also a great source of omega 3 and omega 6 essential fatty acids and offer much of the same nutritional makeup as other green leafy vegetables.
Despite fiddleheads’ unique flavor and powerful nutritional properties, they are not harvested and are available only for a short time during the spring, brought to farmers markets and other produce stands by individuals who go out into the wild and harvest them by hand. Owing to their brief existence and difficulty to procure, fiddleheads are gaining in stature as a regional specialty on the menus of gourmet restaurants – when they can get them.
You can find frozen and pickled fiddleheads year-round, but if you are lucky enough to come upon fresh fiddleheads in season, don’t miss your chance to taste this unusual vegetable. About one inch in diameter, these little round packages of fern fronds have smooth, green stems with a “U”-shaped groove on the inside, topped with bright green, round heads that are covered in a thin brown paper. Keep fresh fiddleheads refrigerated for up to two weeks.
It’s easy to prepare fiddleheads: you can either boil or steam them. Always wash fiddleheads thoroughly, and then wash them again – their curly fronds can harbor microorganisms and they all come straight from the wild. Make sure to remove all the brown papery covering as well.
Fiddleheads should always be cooked, and steaming them is the preferred preparation for gourmet chefs. Spread a thin layer in a steaming basket or saucepan with a little water, and cook lightly until tender crisp, about 10-12 minutes. Enjoy with a little salt, pepper and nothing else.
Boiling fiddleheads is the traditional preparation. Bring your water to a boil and add fiddleheads; water should cover the tops of the ferns. Boil for 15 minutes, strain and then salt and pepper and serve with butter, garlic, lemon or homemade hollandaise sauce.
If you find most green leafy vegetables too bitter for you, try boiling fiddleheads twice (exchanging the water for fresh between boils) to remove some of their bitterness. You can also sauté or stir-fry fiddleheads, however they must always be steamed or boiled first. Chill down your boiled fiddleheads and throw them in a salad with a fresh-made dressing, or just eat them on their own with a dash of salt and pepper.
Tender, tasty and wild, fiddleheads are a unique New England delicacy whose sought-after flavor is a seasonal delight only, making them even more delicious for the lucky people who get to eat them each year!
image: Michael Hodge