Fiddleheads: nature’s delicious treat offered for only a sliver in time
Fiddlehead season is just around the bend in the river, so to speak. Once the swollen creeks and rivers settle after this year’s significant spring flooding, Ostrich fern fronds will start to peek their tightly curled heads out of the duff. Every year, around the same time that yellow forsythia bush flowers surprise by brightening up an otherwise brown and beige landscape, one of our area’s shortest-lived wild food delicacies makes its brief appearance.
Fiddleheads, so called because their shape resembles the ornamental woodwork curls on violins, are increasing in popularity and can be found in health food stores, farmers’ markets and some grocery stores at this time of year. When properly cooked, they taste somewhat like broccoli, asparagus or rapini, but with a special sweet, woodsy je-ne-sais-quoi: the taste of spring. Fiddleheads are very high in iron, antioxidants, and are a source of the healthy fats omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids.
Fiddleheads, which are the young shoots of ostrich ferns, grow in moist areas, near streams, rivers or wetlands. However, many other ferns can grow in these areas, and only ostrich fern shoots are safe to eat in this part of Canada. Other ferns can be toxic and must not be eaten. This is why, if you are inspired to greet spring by foraging for fiddleheads, it is recommended to go with an experienced wild food enthusiast who will be sure that what you find are safe fiddleheads.
Your guide will point out that ostrich ferns can be identified by the fact that they have a smooth, dark green stem, with a deep U-shaped grove on the side that the fern is curled in toward. The tightly curled fronds emerge from the ground with a brown papery covering, which partly rubs off as the fern grows. For sustainability, fiddleheads should only be harvested from mature clumps with four or more shoots the size of a quarter or more, and no more than half of the shoots in a given clump should be harvested.
Proper preparation and cooking is essential with fiddleheads, which can be harmful if not fully cooked. The brown papery covering should first be removed by rubbing or submerging the fiddleheads in water. They must then be either boiled or steamed until tender, which can take 10 to 15 minutes. The cooking water will be brown and should be discarded. The fiddleheads are then ready for use in recipes.
They are a lovely spring treat that don’t require much additional effort to impress diners. Once steamed or boiled, fiddleheads are tasty sauteed in butter or olive oil with some fresh garlic, a splash of the season’s maple syrup and a twist of lemon, or a grating of cheese. They can also be added to any dish, especially where their unique shape is highlighted, such as pasta dishes, quiches, or a quinoa salad. The bounty of the spring is ready to delight your senses.