Fiddleheads are a very ephemeral thing. For 2 or 3 weeks in the spring the emerging shoots of several types of ferns are available for eating.
Now to me they resemble nothing so much as Asparagus in taste, but perhaps that’s because of my preferred method of preparation about which more shortly. Others notice a hint of Almond, but you couldn’t prove it by me. They’re extremely high in Vitamin A, less so in C, and otherwise have all the good nutritional characteristics you expect from a vegetable.
Personally I don’t recommend picking them wild. I’m not Euell Gibbons and I stay away from toadstools and amateur fugu too. Fortunately they’re available from some grocery stores in season (my local Stop & Shop carries them), you can get them over the internet (www.fiddle-heads.com), and also frozen and canned.
If you do choose to go exploring, Wikipedia suggests the following species that grow in North America are edible-
- Bracken, Pteridium aquilinum, found worldwide
- Ostrich fern, Matteuccia struthiopteris, found in northern regions worldwide, and the central/eastern part of North America
- Cinnamon fern or buckhorn fern, Osmunda cinnamomea, found in the Eastern parts of North America
- Royal fern, Osmunda regalis, found worldwide
You should select shoots that are tightly coiled and don’t bother clipping more than 2 inches of stem. Pick no more than 3 heads from each group of seven (they grow in groups of seven) or you risk killing the plant. All Fiddleheads must be cooked to remove shikimic acid. Bracken is the least desirable as it contains carcinogens, but Ostrich and Cinnamon fern Fiddleheads are perfectly safe.
My preferred method of preparation
I buy them fresh at the store and rinse and clean them in cold water, discarding any that are discolored or not tightly coiled. I also trim as much of the stem as I can because it’s my least favorite part.
As with all vegetables it’s not how much you can keep, but how much you throw away.
Now the traditional New England method is to boil them twice, discarding the water between boils. Frankly, I never bother with the second boil (and it hasn’t killed me yet), but I do cook them through until they’re fork tender (meaning you can easily pierce them with a fork and you can cut them with one too). Don’t boil them until they fall apart.
Hollandaise Sauce is the traditional accompaniment, but I prefer Bernaise because I like Tarragon.
In Asian cusine they roast them, something I haven’t tried myself. I have slightly undercooked them and sauteed to finish, making pan sauces like olive oil/garlic and lemon/butter.
Below I’m including recipes for traditional Hollendaise and Bernaise Sauces as well as some other preparations I’ve looked up. If you’re as lazy as I am I find the Knorr brand sauce mixes acceptable substitutes for the real thing.
TV Food Netwood, Food 911- Tyler Florence
- 4 egg yolks
- 1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lemon juice
- 1/2 cup unsalted butter, melted (1 stick)
- Pinch cayenne
- Pinch salt
|Vigorously whisk the egg yolks and lemon juice together in a stainless steel bowl and until the mixture is thickened and doubled in volume. Place the bowl over a saucepan containing barely simmering water (or use a double boiler,) the water should not touch the bottom of the bowl. Continue to whisk rapidly. Be careful not to let the eggs get too hot or they will scramble. Slowly drizzle in the melted butter and continue to whisk until the sauce is thickened and doubled in volume. Remove from heat, whisk in cayenne and salt. Cover and place in a warm spot until ready to use for the eggs benedict. If the sauce gets too thick, whisk in a few drops of warm water before serving.|
TV Food Netwood, Barefoot Contesssa- Ina Garten
- 1/4 cup Champagne or white wine vinegar
- 1/4 cup good white wine
- 2 tablespoons minced shallots
- 3 tablespoons chopped fresh tarragon leaves, divided
- Kosher salt
- Freshly ground black pepper
- 3 extra-large egg yolks
- 1/2 pound (2 sticks) unsalted butter, melted
|Put the Champagne vinegar, white wine, shallots, 1 tablespoon tarragon leaves, 1/4 teaspoon salt, and 1/4 teaspoon pepper in a small saucepan. Bring to a boil and simmer over medium heat for about 5 minutes, until the mixture is reduced to a few tablespoons. Cool slightly.
Place the cooled mixture with the egg yolks and 1 teaspoon salt in the jar of a blender and blend for 30 seconds. With blender on, slowly pour the hot butter through the opening in the lid. Add the remaining 2 tablespoons of tarragon leaves and blend only for a second. If the sauce is too thick, add a tablespoon of white wine to thin. Keep at room temperature until serving.
Morel and Fiddlehead Fern Ragout
TV Food Network, Essence of Emeril, Emeril Lagasse
- 1 1/2 pounds fiddlehead ferns
- 2 shallots, minced
- 4 tablespoons unsalted butter
- 2 sprigs fresh thyme
- 1/2 pound fresh morels, trimmed and rinsed well
- 2 cloves garlic, minced
- 3/4 cup chicken stock
- 1/2 cup heavy cream
- 1 tablespoon chopped chives
- 1 tablespoon chopped parsley
- Salt and pepper
- Parmesan curls, for garnish
|In a saucepan, bring 1 1/2 quarts of salted water to a boil. Add fiddleheads and return to a boil. Using a slotted spoon, transfer fiddleheads to an ice bath and chill. Drain and pat dry, removing as much of the outer brown, tissue-like membrane as possible.
In a skillet saute shallots in butter until softened, about 2 minutes. Add thyme, morels, and garlic and continue to cook until morels have softened and given up their liquid, about 3 minutes. Continue to cook until almost all liquid is evaporated, about 2 more minutes. Add chicken stock and cook until reduced by half. Add fiddleheads and cook 2 minutes, add cream, chives, and parsley, and season with salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste. Serve immediately, garnished with Parmesan curls.
Vermont Fiddlehead Pie
The Combes Family Inn
- 1 uncooked 9-inch pie crust
- 2 cups of fiddlehead, coarsely chopped
- 1 small chopped onion
- 2 Tablespoons of olive oil
- 1 cup shredded Vermont cheddar cheese – sharp or mild
- 4 eggs
- 1 cup of evaporated milk or half & half
- 1 Tablespoon of coarse mustard
- 2 Tablespoons of flour
|Precook pie crust in preheated 350-degree oven (prevents soggy crust). Saute fiddleheads and onions in olive oil. Put in precooked crust followed by cheese. Blend eggs, mustard, flour, half and half and pour into pie crust over other ingredients. Bake at 350-degree oven for 50 minutes. Pie is cooked when knife comes out clean when inserted in pie. Let set for 5 minutes or so before cutting. Serve hot, warm, or cold as you would quiche.|
The following are all from the University of Maine Cooperative Extension–
Shrimp and Fiddlehead Medley
- 1 pound fiddleheads
- 6 ounces linguine, uncooked
- 6 cups water
- 1-3/4 pounds Maine shrimp, fresh or frozen
- 1 teaspoon margarine
- 2/3 cup onion, chopped
- 1/2 cup green pepper, diced
- 1/2 pound fresh mushrooms, sliced
- 1 teaspoon thyme
- 1/4 teaspoon pepper
- 1/8 teaspoon salt
- 1/8 teaspoon celery seed
- 2 tablespoons lemon juice
|Cut off ends of fiddleheads. Remove scales and wash thoroughly. Bring water to a boil in a large saucepan; add shrimp and cook three to five minutes, or until done. Drain well, and set aside. Cook fiddleheads in boiling water for ten minutes. Drain. Coat a large, nonstick skillet with cooking spray; add margarine. Heat until margarine melts. Add onion and green pepper and sauté until crisp-tender. Stir in fiddleheads. Meanwhile, cook pasta as directed, without salt or oil. Drain well, set aside and keep warm.
Add sliced mushrooms, thyme, pepper, salt and celery seeds to vegetable mixture; stir well. Cook, uncovered, over medium heat three to four minutes or until mushrooms are tender, stirring often. Stir in shrimp and lemon juice; cook until heated through, stirring often.
- 1-1/2 pounds fresh fiddleheads
- 1 tablespoon cornstarch
- 1 cup nonfat buttermilk
- 2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
- 3/4 teaspoon lemon juice
- 1/2 teaspoon dried tarragon
- 1/4 teaspoon pepper
|Clean and prepare fiddleheads. Remove scales and wash thoroughly. Place fiddleheads in a vegetable steamer over boiling water. Cover and steam 20 minutes or until tender, but still crisp. Set aside, and keep warm.
Combine cornstarch and buttermilk in a small saucepan; stir well. Cook over medium heat until thickened and bubbly, stirring constantly. Remove from heat; stir in mustard, lemon juice, tarragon and pepper.
And finally 6 recipes for pickled Fiddleheads from the same source-
Plain and Pickled Fiddleheads
- cider vinegar
- 1/8 teaspoon each of pepper, ground nutmeg, cinnamon, allspice and celery seed
|Pour enough vinegar over the fiddleheads to cover; then strain it off into a pan. Add 1 cup sugar for every gallon of vinegar. Add a large pinch of each of the spices and celery seed. Boil this syrup for 7-8 minutes; then pour over the fiddleheads in pint-sized jars. Seal and process for 10 minutes in a boiling water process canner.|
Sweet Pickled Fiddleheads
- 1 quart cider vinegar
- 5 cups sugar
- 2 teaspoons salt
|Mix vinegar, sugar and salt in saucepan; bring to a boil, pour over fiddleheads in pint-sized jars; seal; process 10 minutes in boiling water process canner. Makes 6 pints.|
Sugar-Free Fiddlehead Pickles
- 1 gallon vinegar
- 1 teaspoon powdered saccharin (if desired)
- 1 teaspoon powdered alum
- 1/2 cup salt
- 1/2 teaspoon powdered cloves
- 1 teaspoon powdered allspice
- 1 tablespoon powdered cinnamon
- 1/2 cup dry mustard
|Pack fiddleheads into jars; pour enough liquid to cover fiddleheads; seal at once. Process for 10 minutes in boiling water bath. Let stand at least two weeks before using. If the product is to be sold, it may be necessary to check with the Food and Drug Administration on the use of saccharin in this type of product.|
Mustard Fiddlehead Pickles
- 1 quart button onions (peeled)
- 1 quart fiddleheads
- 2 cups salt
- 4 quarts water
- 1 cup flour
- 6 tablespoons dry mustard
- 2 cups sugar
- 2 quarts vinegar
|Wash and prepare button onions and fiddleheads. Mix salt and water. Pour over fiddleheads. Let stand overnight. Bring to boil, and drain in colander. Mix flour and dry mustard. Stir in enough vinegar to make smooth paste. Add sugar and vinegar. Boil until thick and smooth, stir constantly. Add the fiddleheads and cook until they are just heated through. (Overcooking makes them soft instead of crisp.) Pour into jars and seal immediately. Process 10 minutes in boiling water process canner. Makes 8 pints.|
Quick Sour Fiddlehead Pickles
- 1/2 gallon cider vinegar
- 2 cups water
- 1/2 cup salt
- 1/2 cup sugar
- 1/2 cup mustard seed
|Mix ingredients, bring to boil. Pour over fiddleheads in pint-sized jars; seal; process 10 minutes in boiling water process canner.|
Bread and Butter Fiddlehead Pickles
- 4 pounds fiddleheads
- 3 large onions, thinly sliced
- 1/2 cup salt
- cold water
- 3 trays ice cubes
- 5 cups sugar
- 5 cups cider vinegar
- 1 1/2 teaspoons turmeric
- 1 1/2 teaspoons celery seeds
- 1 1/2 teaspoons mustard seeds
|In 8-quart enamel, stainless steel or glass container, stir fiddleheads, onions, salt and enough cold water to cover fiddleheads until salt dissolves; stir in ice. Cover; let stand in cool place 3 hours. Drain fiddleheads and rinse with cold running water; drain thoroughly.
Measure sugar, vinegar, turmeric, celery seeds and mustard seeds into 8-quart Dutch oven or heavy saucepan. Over high heat, heat to boiling. Reduce heat to low; simmer, uncovered 30 minutes, stirring often. Meanwhile, prepare jars and caps. Add fiddleheads and onions to Dutch oven; heat to boiling. Spoon hot fiddleheads into hot jars to 1/4 inch from the top. Immediately ladle syrup over fiddleheads. Process 10 minutes in boiling water process canner. Cool jars and test for air tightness. Makes about 6 pints.