Fiddleheads are the young coiled fern leaves (about an inch in diameter) of the ostrich fern (Matteuccia struthiopteris). They are very similar in shape to the head of a violin, hence their name. Nearly all ferns have fiddleheads, but those of the ostrich fern are unique. By summer, the ferns can grow up to four feet tall, even after our feast of pruning the first heads in the spring. Both the clean lowlands of Nova Scotia and the eastern coast of the United States have been successfully managed for commercial harvest for more than two hundred years.
In selecting fiddleheads, look for a tight coil and only an inch or two of stem beyond the coil. There is brown papery chaff that surrounds the fiddlehead on the plant. Much of this will have been removed prior to purchase, but some may remain.
Good fiddleheads should have a distinctly crisp texture, both raw and after brief cooking. If more than two 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. Since the chaff is very light, you may want to clean off the chaff outdoors by fanning them or lightly shaking them in an open wire salad basket. After the chaff is removed, wash the fiddleheads in several changes of cold water to remove any dirt or grit. Drain the fiddleheads completely. Use them fresh and soon after harvest. Cook the “heads” in a small amount of lightly salted boiling water for ten minutes, or steam for twenty minutes. Serve at once with melted butter.
If you must store fresh fiddleheads, keep them well-cooled (35 F) and tightly wrapped to prevent drying out. If you have stored them, you may wish to trim the stem again just before use since the cut end will darken in storage. They may be kept in refrigeration for about ten days, although flavour will be best if used as soon as possible after harvest.
Fiddleheads are versatile and easy to use. They have a mild taste reminiscent of asparagus with an added nutty bite all their own. They are perfect marinated in vinegar and oil or as a crunchy pickle. As a featured vegetable, they will please the most demanding palate. Fiddleheads can be used in similar ways to any firm green vegetable such as asparagus or broccoli florets. Fiddleheads will lend their delicious flavour and elegant visual appeal to many familiar dishes. Use them as a perfect featured vegetable in a simple stir-fry. They work well in pasta dishes with a sauce made from extra virgin olive oil and balsamic vinegar. Sauté, stir-fry or steam briefly to retain their crunchy texture and bright green colour. Never eat under-cooked or raw Fiddleheads. Always wash and clean away the brown “fur” around the Fiddlehead. If you like to freeze your Fiddleheads, make sure to blanche them in salty water for five minutes, rinse in cold water and then freeze.
Fiddlehead ferns are a good source of vitamins A and C. Fiddleheads should not be served raw as they have a slight bitterness until cooked and may cause stomach upset if eaten raw in quantity. Health Canada advises that fresh fiddleheads must be properly cooked before being consumed. With fiddlehead season being so short-lived, some people, this writer included, will freeze enough coiled greens for future feasting. To prepare the wild fiddleheads for the freezer, most experts recommend cleaning and washing the shiny green ferns, as they would be made ready for the table. Blanch a small amount of the curled heads at a time for about two minutes. Cool and drain. Pack into moisture and vapour-proof containers and store in the freezer. Also, take time to learn which type of fiddleheads you’re picking. Like mushrooms, make sure you collect the good and edible ones.
1-1/2 lbs. fresh fiddleheads
1 tbs. cornstarch
1 cup non-fat buttermilk
2 tsp. Dijon mustard
3/4 tsp. lemon juice
½ tsp. dried tarragon
1/4 tsp. pepper
Clean and prepare fiddleheads. Remove scales and wash thoroughly. Place fiddleheads in a vegetable steamer over boiling water. Cover and steam 20 minutes or until tender, but still crisp. Set aside, and keep warm. Combine cornstarch and buttermilk in a small saucepan; stir well. Cook over medium heat until thickened and bubbly, stirring constantly. Remove from heat; stir in mustard, lemon juice, tarragon, and pepper. Arrange fiddleheads on a serving platter. Spoon sauce over fiddleheads. Serve immediately. Makes 6 servings.
Cream of Fiddlehead soup
1-1/2 lbs fresh fiddleheads
1 medium onion, chopped
2 tbs. butter
Salt & pepper
1 quart whole milk
Half a quart coffee cream
Grated Parmesan cheese
Sauté the onions in butter in a soup pot. Add the fiddleheads. After sautéing 5 minutes remove some fiddleheads for garnish. Then add milk and cream. Cook for 15 minutes. Coarsely blend the soup with a blender stick. Use salt-pepper for taste. Serve with homemade bread, garnish with Parmesan cheese and fiddleheads around the rim.