ne of the many pleasures of early spring is the brief moment when fiddleheads, or fiddlehead fern greens, can be found. The timing has to be perfect, as the fiddlehead (named after the scrolled end of the violin) is a young unfurled frond of a fern.
As a fern grows, each frond unrolls, growing upward, but in the earliest stages remains curled in a spiral shape, close to the ground, about an inch to two inches tall. Wait too long into the spring season, and the fiddlehead will have already opened into one of the feathery fronds of a mature fern, and be inedible. Even though all ferns produce fiddleheads during early stages of development, not all fiddleheads are safe to eat. And while there are more than 10,000 species of ferns, the one most suitable for eating in the United States is the ostrich fern (Matteuccia struthiopteris), found practically everywhere in the northern hemisphere. Since they are such a seasonal item and they are not cultivated but only foraged in the wild, fiddlehead ferns have something of a cult following among the food cognoscenti. It doesn’t hurt their reputation that they are tasty in a tender and crunchy way, and can be cooked in a variety of dishes.
Fiddleheads taste green—like the deep, moist green of the forest. Some say they taste a bit like asparagus or green beans, but it’s hard to pinpoint the exact taste of such a special little plant. They are prized for their delicate flavor and crunchy texture.
If properly washed and stored in a Ziploc bag, fiddleheads can be stored for as long as a week in the refrigerator. Fiddleheads come with a brown, papery skin that must be removed before eating. If there is any stem extending from the coil, cut that off before cooking. To cook, bring salted water to a boil and add the fiddleheads, allowing them to boil for ten to fifteen minutes. Remove and drain, then toss with butter or vinegar. You can also chill them and serve on salad with a vinegar dressing. Fiddleheads can also be cooked in a steam basket or sautéed until tender crisp, and they are quite nice in tempura. Remember to cook them thoroughly, and never eat them raw. The Center for Disease Control has investigated several food-borne illness cases with fiddleheads, and recommends eating them fully cooked as a result.
The good news is that fiddleheads contain omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids and a number of other vitamins, including potassium. They can be tossed into pasta or rice dishes, or even pickled to enjoy outside of the short time in early spring when they grace the forest floor with their coiled heads.