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Fiddlehead Fern: A Controversial Coil

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Every week we get Down & Dirty, in which we break down our favorite unique seasonal fruits, vegetables, and more.

Today: we're talking about fiddlehead ferns -- learn what to look for, how to prep them, and get ideas for safely enjoying them in meals all week long.

Did your mom ever tell you to eat your vegetables so you’d grow big and strong? Bet she never promised invisibility. In Europe’s Middle Ages, people believed that carrying “fern seed” would make you to disappear from sight. Shakespeare even referenced these magical powers in Henry IV

While we can't vouch for super powers, we can affirm that ferns are to thank for a fleeting spring treat. The term fiddlehead fern is generally used to reference ostrich fern fiddleheads, but fiddlehead actually refers to a stage of growth -- and the name fittingly comes from its resemblance to the scroll at the top of a fiddle. If you haven’t tried fiddleheads before, be ready for flavors ranging from asparagus to artichokes to green beans. 

What to Look For
If you're foraging for fiddleheads, take care to properly identify ostrich fern fiddleheads and always follow sustainable harvesting guidelines. Look for the deep groove (4) -- think of the shape of a celery stalk -- on the side of the stem facing the coil. Avoid ferns with an all-over fuzziness; ostrich fern fiddleheads are smooth, with brown papery bits that easily rub off.

When picking fiddleheads, choose small, firm, and tightly furled specimens. Pass on any that are starting to uncurl (1), or that are discolored (2) --  fiddleheads should be jade green (3). (Note: some fiddleheads will have a lot of the papery brown chaff, but once rubbed off, they are bright green.)

How to Store and Prep
Fiddleheads should be consumed shortly after you bring them home. If you have to store them, keep them in the fridge wrapped tightly in plastic wrap (5), and use them within a couple of days. They won’t spoil quickly, but they will lose flavor and firmness. For longer storage, try pickling. It's possible to freeze fiddleheads to extend their season, but Elizabeth Scheider advises against it. She finds they become fibrous and fishy, and prefers to “cherish them as vernal ephemera.”

Look for them at a farmers market or specialty grocer. The stalks are edible, although unless you’re picking them yourself, generally you’ll just see the coiled tops being sold. Give the fiddleheads a good rinse, then place them in a bowl of water and rub to remove all of their papery scale-like coverings.

More: Not sure where the closest farmers market is? Find one near you on Real Time Farms.

Consider This Fair Warning
When we say fiddleheads, we are strictly talking about ostrich fern fiddleheads, as they are considered the safest for consumption. People frequently forage for fiddleheads of other varieties like the lady fern or the shield fern, and consider them to be safe as long as they're cooked. Bracken fern fiddleheads are an especially controversial variety; many believe the ferns are fine to consume in small quantities, but they're known to contain a carcinogen.

Not to turn into Debbie Downer and ruin your meal, but we should also mention that raw and undercooked fiddleheads have been to blame for cases of food poisoning -- though not the ostrich fern variety you'll probably be eating. 

How to Cook
As a result of these cases, safety standards recommend boiling fiddleheads for 15 minutes or steaming them for 10 to 12 minutes prior to use in recipes. Of course, there is debate about this as well: John Mickel, senior curator emeritus at The New York Botanical Garden, suggests that cooking just 5 minutes is sufficient. 

Either way, your fiddleheads shouldn’t be consumed raw. Boiling fiddleheads will best retain their color and texture, and will help to remove any bitterness. In order to highlight their unique flavor, fiddleheads are arguably best prepared simply: boil, then lightly sauté with butter and finish with lemon. You can also think about using fiddleheads in the same ways you’d use asparagus or haricot verts. Of course we’re fans of gilding the lily, too -- so if you’re looking for more ideas, we’ve got you covered for the week:

Saturday: Fiddleheads and Cavatelli with Duck Confit
Sunday: Fern Curry with Shrimp
Monday: Fiddlehead Fern and Morel Salad
Tuesday: Fiddlehead Ferns with Brown Butter and Prosciutto
Wednesday: Spicy Sweet Fiddlehead Chickpea Pasta
Thursday: Steamed Fiddleheads with Horseradish Scallion Sauce
Friday: Salad of Morels, Fiddleheads, Ramps and Farro

What are your favorite ways to cook with fiddleheads?

Photos by James Ransom 

Read More:
Too Many Cooks: Forage For Your Life
How to Prep Asparagus
Down & Dirty: Asparagus

Tags: Sustainability, Ingredients, Down and Dirty, Diagrams