Every year in late spring or very early summer, I read something or other about fiddlehead ferns. One of the articles mentioned they grow wild in New England along mossy stream banks. That kind of lets Florida out, or so I thought until I found them in both the Fresh Market and Whole Foods. So I brought some home, did more reading and made them for dinner the other night.
So what are they exactly? They are the immature leaf fronds of ostrich fern plants that have not yet opened. Fern leaves are poisonous once they open and can only be enjoyed in this early stage.
What do they taste like? A cross between artichokes and asparagus, kind of earthy and nutty.
Where do you find them? The ostrich fern is native to the northeast as well as to the upper Midwestern states. Ostrich fern also grows freely in Alaska and in many parts of Canada. It is grown in the Northwest where wild-food enthusiasts consider it high on the culinary list. Ostrich fern will grow in the home garden in regions with moderate to cold winters and mild summers. It does not do well in areas that remain warm year round. The winter chill period is important to the growth cycle of this fern.
So, look for them in late spring and very early summer. Fiddlehead ferns are only available for a short time, so grab them while you can. Because Florida does not have fiddlehead ferns growing by mossy stream banks or anyplace else, I looked to see where mine came from. The label said: Alpine Foragers Exchange Inc. in Portland Oregon. That's a long trip from Oregon to Florida for sure. I'm rather surprised someone in New England isn't supplying them, but maybe the prices are higher or perhaps nobody's thought of it.
I also read they are fabulous served with morels, which you lucky northerners can forage for at just about the same time. Those two earthy flavors combined must be a gourmand's dream. I think next spring I'm going to splurge and buy some dried morels just so I can taste these two together. But if you love mushrooms and don't want to spring for morels, use shiitakes or any other commonly available mushroom.
How to prepare them for cooking? If more than 2 inches of stem remains attached beyond the coiled part of the fiddlehead snap or cut it off. If any of the paper chaff remains on the fiddleheads you may rub it off by hand. I rinsed them in water and used a soft brush to get the chaff off. After the chaff is removed wash the fiddleheads in several changes of cold water to remove any dirt or grit. Drain the fiddlehead completely. Use them fresh as soon after harvest as possible.
When I made them, I got some salted boiling water going and parboiled them for a couple minutes. Not long, because you don't want them soft. Put them in an ice bath and then dry them completely. The first time, I fried them along with some shallots and garlic and seasoned them with salt and pepper, eating them as a vegetable. Double yum, people.
Then I read Mary's blog.... Ocean Breezes, Country Sneezes and she had made them with pancetta, something I noticed a few other recipes suggested. Mary also mentioned you can freeze them. I'll try that next year, although I should think getting them absolutely fresh (which I can't) would be key to successful freezing.
The next night, because I had some angel hair pasta, I cooked that and at the same time, browned some pancetta, browned shallots and garlic with the parboiled fiddleheads, tossed it with the pasta and topped with a bit of Parmesan. Oh Lord. Deeee-vine.
But next time, I'm using bacon which would be just as good if not better (and I almost always have some in the fridge), and mushrooms. Morels would be perfect if I could get them, which I can't, darn it, but we already discussed that. Next spring, if you find fiddleheads in your market or if you can forage for them, take some home. Make them with bacon and mushrooms. What a treat. So here's the recipe...with by-the-seat-of-your-pants instructions; a combination of several recipes.
Fiddlehead Ferns with Pancetta
Pancetta, 1/4 inch thick, diced (or bacon)
1 garlic clove, minced
1 shallot, diced
pasta, your choice
mushrooms, morels if you're lucky (optional)
Clean the fiddleheads as described above. Boil them in salted water for a couple minutes, then plunge them into an ice bath to stop the cooking.
Dry thoroughly. Brown the diced pancetta and remove from pan onto paper towels. I discarded the grease, wiped the pan and added some butter. Add the shallots, garlic and fiddleheads. Brown them lightly and then add the pancetta.
Cook your pasta as desired, drain and toss with the fiddlehead/shallot mixture. Top with some Parmesan and serve.