Caregiving from my kitchen

Fiddlehead Ferns

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.

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.

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.

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 - 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.

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…

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.

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!)

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.

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.

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.

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.

Fiddlehead Ferns

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

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Ingredients

  • Fiddleheads
  • Butter (optional)

Instructions

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. Bring a pot of water to boil. Place fiddleheads in a steamer insert, and place over the water. Cover and steam for 10 minutes.
  4. Optional: Melt butter in a fry pan, and briefly saute fiddleheads in it, until well covered in butter, and a few spots lightly brown.
  5. Serve at once.
  6. Otherwise, simply serve hot with butter, if desired.
7.8.1.2
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https://www.inhabitedkitchen.com/fiddlehead-ferns/

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.

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34 thoughts on “Fiddlehead Ferns”

    • You're welcome! They're not available everywhere, so that may be a factor. But if you can get them - oh, my, a kid would love them! They look so cool!
  • Very cool post! I have never tried fiddleheads, which is odd because I have a BS in Ornamental Horticulture and there are Ostrich Ferns all over the place around here! I might have to take a walk in woods later and see if I can find some :) I've never seen them at the public market either but like you said, you have time that just right!
    • Fascinating! (And so I know you know what you are looking at... LOL) Definitely look for them, and good luck! They are some work to harvest and clean, but worth it, I think.
  • I learned so much from this post, thank you! We do get fiddleheads here, sometimes, in the spring... and I actually saw some just the other day. I was so tempted to snatch them up, and now I'm regretting my choice to pass them by. Now I'll know how to prepare them when I see them again!
    • Oh, cool! I'm so glad! Thank you for telling me. Yes, I've had things like that - Looks interesting, what would I do with them, how would I even find out, what are those called, again?? I love when I get an answer! Hope you find them this week!
    • They're not all that readily available even in areas where they do grow - you pretty much need to be at the right farmer's market in the right region during the right couple of weeks. I'd never heard of them myself for most of my life... I went with this post knowing that it would be of mild general interest (at best) for many people - but fascinating to some and extremely useful to a handful... and the comments seem to be bearing me out. Glad to provide something interesting!
  • I've been served these in restaurants (notably in Canada and in Japan) but I've never thought to look for and cook them at home. Feeling quite inspired, thank you!
    • As I understand it, in Japan they're probably the fronds of a different plant, not ostrich fern. There are a couple of different ferns eaten this way, around the world. But I've never seen them in a restaurant, so that's cool!
  • These are a favorite of mine to fix. My husband and I go fiddlehead hunting every spring. Here in Maine you can find them growing beside the road if you're lucky or you can get them from the local farmer's market. I love them sauteed in garlic butter with a little cumin, salt, and pepper sprinkled in.
    • Cool! Foraging them myself isn't a serious option, here in Manhattan... LOL They do grow here, a friend just posted a picture, but foraging in New York City parks is technically illegal, because they're concerned that, with so many of us, the parks might be stripped out. (In fact, people do it, and even teach classes, and a blind eye is usually turned to those foraging gently... but if too many people start, officials will start Noticing.) I eat them so rarely, I never even tried seasoning - but garlic and cumin sound fantastic! (Hmmm... you know - green garlic is at Greenmarket now, too. That would be a combination!)
    • Yes - I was excited to see them because I haven't had fiddleheads for a couple of years myself! It's a short season, and we've had several unseasonable springs - alternating between unusually warm and unusually cold. By now, I have no idea when to look for anything! The Coolness Factor of the way they look is certainly part of the attraction - but I do love the flavor.
    • It's not exactly the same, of course - but the same ballpark, as it were. A little More - more green, more intense, more earthy... More Spring... Absolutely try them, if you can!
  • What a cool looking veggie! I've never even heard of them! I don't have anything unusual growing in my yard, but my mom's backyard is full of wild blackberry bushes! Picking them is one of my favorite things to do in summer.
    • Ummm... There were wild blackberries across the road from my grandmother's place. They were on the edge of a heavily wooded, steep hill, so we could never get many berries, but I remember going up in my robe, first thing in the morning, to pick berries for cereal or muffins. Nice memory...
  • Stumbled upon what appear to be fiddle head ferns, but I'm apprehensive about whether they are or aren't edible. Would love to post a photo...
    • I'm afraid I'm not the person to ask that. I live in Manhattan, and just buy them from farmers who harvest the fiddleheads on their own land... Because they know what they are looking at! I would suggest finding someone local who is familiar with them. I know that there are actually several kinds of edible ferns, but also inedible or toxic ones, so don't just eat them randomly. Wish I could be more help! And good luck with them!
    • Well - as a caution - not all are! And even the edible ones are only in this early stage... But if you can find someone who shows you the right ones in your area (if there are any - another issue) they are delicious!
  • I've always been fascinated by fiddlehead ferns - I think they are beautiful - but I never know how to cook with them! Sauteed in butter as you suggest and maybe with some pasta and goat's cheese sounds like a fantastic lunch!
    • Yes - I remember wondering what to do with them myself! Do steam them first - it is important to cook them enough. And oh, my, that does sound fantastic!
    • They really are wonderful! If you forage yourself, do make sure you get the right plants - not all ferns are edible. I do my searching at the farmer's market, so that part is easier!

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