Native food at its best!
Wild fiddlehead ferns (or simply “fiddleheads”) foraged from our New England woods, are a truly luscious native delicacy, and they have arrived.
My Uncle Leonard was a great forager of wild native foods. Heading out to the woods with him and my Aunt Mary was always a treat; she searched for antique bottles around old cellar holes, he turned his attention to wild foods. In the spring he gathered fiddleheads and ramps (which are wild leeks) in great abundance, and morel mushrooms when we were lucky.
A Native Delicacy
When I catch that first whiff of the little garlicky ramps, I am immediately transported to the woods in Spofford, N.H., where I grew up. They are delicious, and they are my favorite vegetable of all, or at least in late April and early May. If you find them, use them! They may even be growing in your own back yard.
Fiddleheads are the early tightly coiled sprout of the ostrich fern, and resemble asparagus in taste and texture, only I think they are better! If left on the plant, each fiddlehead would unroll into a new fern frond. They are not cultivated, but are gathered in the wild in the Northern areas of the country.
They are called fiddleheads because they resemble the curled ornamentation on the end of a fiddle!
When I don’t make it out to the woods myself, I turn to my suppliers – the farm stand, or a man selling on the side of the road, same man, same place every year, and I believe the same pickup truck. I know him only as “The Fiddlehead Man.” The price is fair, and I’m happy.
My sister-in-law Brenda has a secret foraging patch, and she brings me another batch, in exchange for my cleaning and cooking them of course. A fair exchange I eagerly anticipate each spring. These are relationships to cultivate!
If you find wild ramps at this time, prepare them with the fiddleheads. There is nothing better when you are having spring cravings.
Time but no trouble
The fiddleheads take a little messing with, but it is simple work and they are well worth it. If you don’t clean, rinse, and blanch them well, they will be bitter and have an off taste, which is why many people think they don’t like them.
I believe they gave the native population a needed hit of nutrients at this time of year. Fiddleheads are a powerhouse with a good antioxidant content and lots of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, iron, and fiber.
My aunt just blanched them and fried them in some bacon grease. But the addition of onion and perhaps mushroom added to the texture and flavor. Don’t forget to finish with lemon!
Here is what I had for supper one night this week. Of course, all you really need is some olive oil and the fiddleheads, but to round it out, a few extras are good here. This is really quick if you have prepared your fiddleheads beforehand.
1 tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
1 large sweet onion, sliced
8 ounces fresh mushrooms, sliced
1 lb. prepared fiddlehead ferns, see instructions
1 tbsp. finely minced fresh chives
Salt and pepper to taste
1 tbsp. freshly squeezed lemon juice
Eggs for poaching
First, prepare the fiddleheads:
To begin, soak fiddleheads in cold, salted water for five minutes, and rub off any brown, papery scales with your fingers or a soft cloth. These are extremely bitter and taste horrible. Drain, change the water, and soak an additional five minutes. Discard the soaking water, and rinse well.
If the second water is still quite dark and murky, soak them a third time. These prep steps are extremely important, so don’t rush the process. Put on some music and putter around with other tasks. It is well worth the effort.
Sett a large pot of salted water over high heat, and once boiling, add the prepared fiddleheads. Once back to a good boil, blanch for one minute. The water will darken as the tannin is released from the sprouts; this can be alarming; the water will be as dark as over-steeped English Breakfast Tea, that is good! It means the tannin has left the greens, and your fiddleheads will not be bitter. Drain, and immediately soak in ice water to stop the cooking process.
Once they are completely chilled, put onto a fresh tea towel and pat dry, or spin in your salad spinner. You can do all this ahead of time and refrigerate the fiddleheads for several days until you are ready to use them. Cooking at this point will be quick.
Now, it’s time to cook:
For this recipe, heat a large skillet and add the oil (my mother used bacon fat). Sauté the onion until it starts to color, then add the mushrooms. Continue to sauté until they are almost to where you want them and add the fiddleheads.
Now, if you are lucky enough to find some ramps or asparagus, throw them in for the last minute of cooking.
Sauté for another few minutes, season with salt and pepper and chives, and remove to a dish to keep warm.
Poach or fry your eggs, whichever you prefer, and plate!
Finish with a squeeze of lemon juice, and perhaps a curl or two of Parmesan. I find the lemon especially adds a needed spark of acid.
This is truly the most satisfying taste of spring. I crave them every year! If you don’t have a nice sister-in-law, you can find them at most of the farm stands, and there are even some on-line sources these days.
Let’s not forget the ramps!
One of my favorite soups is a simple and quick preparation of Cream of Coconut and Ramp Soup. I like it best chilled, but if it is a cold day, you will want to serve it hot.