May 19 2011

Fresh from the Market: Fiddleheads

Ramps, nettles, fiddleheads.  Besides their green colors, they have something else in common:  they're all plants that grow in the wild and are traditionally foraged.  This means that before restaurants and websites like Gilt Taste were selling them (at $18.50 a pound, in Gilt Taste’s case!), people in climates the plants traditionally grow were already gathering these greens for their families, leaving enough of the crop behind to ensure they could forage for it the following year.

Berried Treasure's fiddleheads

Unlike ramps, which can be cultivated, fiddlheads aren't farmed.  Foragers are instructed to pick 3 of the 7 tops on the plant and leave the rest.

My initial attraction to fiddleheads was purely aesthetic.  I can't think of another vegetable that looks like a fiddlehead-- with its curly q middle and tail, it resembles a kewpie doll's ringlet...if that ringlet were green.


Fiddleheads are unfurled fronds (or leaves) of the Ostrich Fern.  The origin of their name is immediately apparent, as their ends resemble a fiddle.

Wild fiddlehead ferns grow best in cool, damp areas and are prevalent in New England, the Pacific Northwest, and Alaska.   Foragers must be experienced when picking fiddleheads, as the similar looking Bracken fern is carcinogenic.

There are many different sites around the internet warning of fiddleheads' ability to cause food poisoing.  Indeed, some people are sensitive to fiddleheads if they're not cooked thoroughly (almost to the state of being mushy).  As with most foods, this is certainly a person-by-person situation, but be sure to wash the fiddleheads thoroughly and never eat them raw.

Flavor Profile:

Fiddleheads’ strong taste is meaty and dominating.  As you cook them more thoroughly, they become tender with a crisp on each bite.  While eating them yesterday, their flavor reminded me of okra’s, but without okra’s residual gumminess.

In the Kitchen:

Look for tight coils and a vibrant green color.  If you can't eat them the day of, wrap them in plastic wrap and store them in the refrigerator.  Before preparing fiddleheads, wash them thoroughly and remove the brown paper like material covering the fronds.

Apparently, some people freeze fiddleheads, to enjoy them later in the summer.  According to University of Maine’s website:  to freeze fiddleheads, clean them as you would for the table. Blanch a small amount at a time for two minutes in 4 to 6 cups of water. Cool and drain in cold water. Pack into moisture- and vapor-proof containers and freeze. Thaw and boil for 10 minutes before serving.

Fiddleheads pair well with asparagus (as you'll see in an upcoming recipe), carrots, sugar snap peas, and garlic.  They're also an easy and fun addition to any stir fry.

Growing Season:

Fiddleheads are only available for 2-3 weeks each year in the Spring:  before that the coils haven't uncoiled and after that, they have!

Interesting Links:

Fiddlehead sculpture in New Brunswick, Canada

Overharvesting in Vermont

Fiddlehead stationary

Sources: Elements Environmental Magazine, Wikipedia, University of Maine, Ehow