Looking at older posts, I notice that I’ve spend much of the last few months saying, again and again, “But in the Northeast, we don’t…” Here in the Northeast, nothing grows in February. Our Fall harvest is plentiful, but then abruptly over. We only get good tomatoes a few months each year. So-called Spring Produce – strawberries, asparagus – often isn’t available until June. Summer Produce – tomatoes, eggplant – reaches its height in September. In the Northeast, we don’t have…
But now, I seem to have started a series – not actually intended – about the food we do have, here in the Northeast! Bluefish, last week – flavorful, meaty, rich… And today, fiddleheads.
I finally got to Union Square Greenmarket again. When I went about a month ago, just a few farmers had just a little of the very first greens, in with their root vegetables and bedding plants. But it was a warm winter, and the early Spring was very warm (though oddly, it’s chilly now) and those farms in the warmer areas now have full bunches of chard, huge bags of spinach, and – I heard – the very first asparagus (though it was sold out before I got there.)
And piles and piles of (carefully and sustainably harvested) ramps (which I find pleasant, but not as exciting as many others do) and fiddleheads. Now, those I get excited about!
Fiddleheads are the young and still curled fronds of edible ferns – around here, ostrich ferns. The name comes, logically, from their resemblance to the ornate carved end of a fiddle – I find them remarkably attractive. (How many vegetables are just that pretty?) They only grow wild, are only at the right stage of growth for a brief time, and must be carefully hand harvested, in such a way that the plant is not damaged. They are therefore expensive, if you buy them from someone else… or free for the harvesting, if they grow on your own land, and you know what to look for and how to harvest them. (As is true for all wildcrafting, do be sure you know what to look for – there are toxic ferns out there!)
Their taste reminds me of asparagus, but somehow even fresher, greener, more intense. You do need to fuss with them a bit – they grow with a brown papery covering, which you want to mostly wash away – I, at least, have never gotten all of it, but it’s just annoying, rather than inedible, so I don’t worry too much about it. Put the fiddleheads in a bowl of cold water, swish them around well, rub them a little, and most of the papery bits will float loose. Pour that off, repeat a time or two, then drain. Now, if you want, you can get to work with a toothpick and get the rest, but… I don’t bother…
Now, with most Spring vegetables you have to be very careful not to overcook them. Fiddleheads, on the other hand, must be cooked enough. Turns out there is still a mild toxin in them, which is destroyed by cooking – every once in a while people do get sick from them. Before I knew that, I knew they needed boiling or steaming to make them tender… and that the process did not overcook them (as I would have expected.)
So, after washing them, trim the cut ends just slightly, as they dry out and brown a little, and pull off whatever papery bits you can still easily get (and want to bother with.) I steamed them, here, for ten minutes, which I like best, though you can also boil them. I didn’t get a picture, but at the end, the water looks a bit rusty – don’t be surprised by that. (It can be more startling if you boiled them!)
And now, you can just serve them right as they are, with butter if you like. I often do a second step, and lightly saute them in a little butter – I find it coats them well with the butter, and I like to get just a little browning… You don’t have to do that – it’s gilding the lily – but I only eat them once or at most twice a year. Many years I don’t see them at all, if I don’t get to Union Square just the right week. Not only is the season short, but it varies – early, this year – often, I’m not sure if I’m too early or too late!
You’re not going to see fiddleheads in your average supermarket. I do have a vague idea that I have seen them at least once in a Gourmet Market (where they really cost an arm and a leg!) If you live in the Northern US – the cool climate areas – you might want to do the research to see if they are local, and ask around your farmer’s market.
Or ask them what is local to your area… Farmers sometimes know what they collect for their families in their own woodlands, but don’t think they have a market for – or at least, not one that will pay them well enough for it to be worth the time and effort in the middle of planting season. (And that is a serious consideration.) I did just read a blog post about harvesting morels in the bloggers back yard!
What can you get or grow – wild or planted – that perhaps I cannot? I know people who go to the yard, not the store, to get a lemon or an avocado – but many of them can’t grow the pears friends of mine have in New Jersey. The US is large and varied enough – what about those of you in the rest of the world? I don’t think anyone in Antarctica reads Inhabited Kitchen – but the other six continents are covered… I love learning about local food. It’s one of the many fun parts about reading food blogs, for me – seeing the regional variations.
Fiddleheads - the edible and delicious unopened fronds of a wild fern. Harvested for a few short weeks in late Spring, they are sold in farmer's markets.
10 minPrep Time
10 minCook Time
20 minTotal Time
- Butter (optional)
- Wash fiddleheads in a bowl of water, rubbing lightly to release the papery brown coating. Pour off the water and papery part, repeat until clear.
- Trim off just a thin slice at the end of each cut stem - the dry and brownish part. Pull off any papery bits that are still curled up in the fronds - you probably won't get them all.
- Bring a pot of water to boil. Place fiddleheads in a steamer insert, and place over the water. Cover and steam for 10 minutes.
- Optional: Melt butter in a fry pan, and briefly saute fiddleheads in it, until well covered in butter, and a few spots lightly brown.
- Serve at once.
- Otherwise, simply serve hot with butter, if desired.