Real Food Right Now and How to Cook It: Fiddleheads

Few vegetables are as beautiful as fiddleheads, the shoots of various species of fern. The type of fiddlehead we most commonly see here on the East Coast are bright green, with tightly coiled heads delicately curled like the scroll of a violin, sometimes with bits of the forest floor still clinging to them. A bin of fiddleheads at the market makes me think about walks in the woods with my grandma, of spring and of new growth and regeneration. With a flavor slightly reminiscent of asparagus, but somehow also nutty and pleasantly bitter, fiddleheads are a delicious reminder that the doldrums of winter are finally over.

A Brief History

The most common types of fern labeled “fiddlehead” in the US and Canada are the shoots of the lovely ostrich fern (Matteuccia Struthiopteris), or less commonly, the cinnamon fern (Osmunda cinnamonum). Melvin Nash, Canadian author of Cooking North America's Finest Gourmet Fiddleheads (and inventor of a “personal fiddlehead-harvesting machine”) notes that the Maliseet and the Mi'kmaq tribes of Eastern Canada and Maine were probably the first groups to harvest the edible ostrich fern shoots. Acadians, descendants of French colonists who settled in Eastern Canada and Maine, apparently picked up this fiddlehead-eating practice from the Maliseet and the Mi’kmaq, with whom they were in contact. (Some Acadians eventually migrated to Louisiana – we know them as “Cajuns,” a corruption of “Acadian.”) Indeed, fiddleheads are still a very popular seasonal delicacy in Maine, Quebec and other parts of Eastern Canada.

Other species of fern called “fiddlehead” include the bracken fern (Pterdidium species), a family of ferns that is fairly common worldwide, eaten all over Asia and the Pacific Islands, and by some Native American groups on both the East and West Coasts of the US and Canada. Other types of fiddleheads were eaten only as famine foods, like the hapu'u, a tree fern native to Hawaii.

Factual Nibbles

  • There is an annual fiddlehead festival in Maine, where the veggie has a long history of use.
  • According to ethnobotanists from the University of North Carolina, bracken fern fiddleheads have been used worldwide for lots of interesting things, including: beer making (Siberia and Norway), a treatment for intestinal worms and diarrhea (North America) and as a preservative for wine (Europe).
  • In addition to his personal fiddlehead-harvesting machine, Melvin Nash, Canadian champion of fiddleheads, has also invented a commercial fiddlehead-cleaning machine and a fiddlehead cleaning-harvesting basket modeled after a traditional Maliseet version, as seen in this Flickr photo set.

Cultivation

Most fiddleheads aren’t cultivated; rather, they are foraged in forested areas. (Banks of rivers and creeks are supposed to be quite popular amongst fiddlehead foragers.) However, in Ontario, Canada, one enterprising farmer seems to be changing the traditional foraging method for fiddlehead collection – he started NorCliff Farms, where he has planted ostrich ferns for harvest for the commercial market.  

Seasonality

Fiddleheads of many species (including ostrich ferns and bracken) are in season in most places in the US from late March through June (if we’re lucky). Look for them at farmers’ markets and specialty stores; they are unlikely to be found in the average supermarket.

Environmental Impact

 As long as foragers are environmentally conscious, fiddlehead foraging seems to have little environmental impact. The Wall Street Journal, in an article about fiddleheads (no, fiddleheads aren’t a publicly traded commodity), notes, “the unwritten ethic among fiddlehead foragers is to take three violin tops. A fern produces five to nine fronds per growing season, so harvesting more than three can jeopardize the plant’s survival.” Here is a super interesting video about foraging for fiddleheads in the Berkshire Mountains.

Characteristics

Fiddleheads of the ostrich fern, probably the most common fiddleheads seen in most of the US, really do resemble the scroll of a violin, with a tightly curled head and a fairly thick stem. They are beautifully bright green and are one of the very first veggies, along with ramps and morel mushrooms, available in the earliest part of spring. Many other types of ferns look really, really similar, and some are highly and immediately poisonous – so unless you are a foraging expert, please avoid trying to harvest your own! Other types of fiddleheads, like the bracken fern, look a little different – described as “curled like an eagle’s talon” or, perhaps more poetically, resembling “an arthritic bird’s talons.” 

What to look for

Look for ostrich fern fiddleheads that are tightly curled and no bigger than a half-dollar (any larger and they start to get tough). Unfurled fiddleheads are also not yummy. You may notice brown, papery bits clinging to the veggie – that’s just a part of the plant itself, most of which will be rinsed off when you clean them.

Nutrition and effects on the body

Fiddleheads are high in vitamins A and C, and are good sources of niacin and manganese and even contain some protein and iron. Like most vegetables, they are high in fiber and low in calories. Researchers in Canada have recently discovered that ostrich fern fiddleheads are also quite high in omega-3 fatty acids, the consumption of which has been linked to lowered heart disease risk and lower cholesterol. These same Canadian researchers have also discovered that ostrich fern fiddleheads are high in other antioxidants, too – apparently they contain twice the antioxidants of blueberries.

The bad news? There is pretty compelling evidence that some types of fiddleheads cause cancer, most notably bracken ferns (Pteridium family), common in Korean and Japanese cuisine; also found commonly on the West Coast of the US. As Hank Shaw (author of the amazing website Hunter, Angler, Gardener, Cook) discusses in his article on bracken ferns for The Atlantic, the current thinking is that certain preparation methods lesson the carcinogenic affects of these types of fiddleheads, but they should probably be eaten in moderation – and never, ever raw. (Apparently, in Korea, where bracken is a common ingredient, used in the ubiquitous bibimbap, there are higher rates of throat and stomach cancer than elsewhere in the world; it is suspected that the toxin in bracken ferns, ptalquiloside, could be one of the factors.) According to food scientist Harold McGee, ostrich fern shoots (the kind most commonly labeled as “fiddleheads” in most parts of the US) are thought to be safer, but “there is little solid information on the safety of eating ferns.” He notes that it is wise to eat the veggie in moderation, and to ask local sellers what species of fern they are selling, as many are indistinguishable to the untrained eye. Bracken ferns (and other types of ferns eaten in Australia and elsewhere) also contain thiaminase, a compound that basically renders thiamin (vitamin B1 ) inactive. (This is bad. Very bad, as thiamin is important for metabolism and possibly also brain cell activity.) Cooking helps render thiaminase inactive. Bracken ferns have been implicated in poisoning in grazing livestock around the world.

But wait – there is more bad news!  Unfortunately, since at least 1994, fiddleheads have been linked to a number of food-borne illnesses in both the US and Canada. It is still unclear what the cause of the illness is, whether a toxin, bacteria or virus – but what is known is that, like bracken ferns, ostrich fern fiddleheads should never be eaten raw or even lightly sautéed. (Oops! That’s how I’ve always cooked them in the past.) They also need to be washed really, really well prior to cooking. Public health officials recommend boiling the veggie for 10-15 minutes, or steaming for at least 10 minutes.  

What to Do with It

Lovely fiddleheads are as diverse in the kitchen as any green veggie – as long as you steam or boil them first. In case you skimmed the last section, we strongly advise against eating fiddleheads of any fern variety raw! 

Cooking

After the necessary steaming or boiling – fiddleheads are delicious sautéed in butter, fried (like this tempura-fried fiddlehead recipe, yum!), made into soup, tossed into risotto (or pasta) or grilled. They are extra delicious paired with their seasonal buddies – morels (or other kinds of mushrooms) and ramps or spring onions. Fiddleheads pair nicely with new potatoes and eggs, too.

Fiddleheads of various species are also eaten in Korean, Japanese, Chinese, Indonesian, Hawaiian, Thai and Indian cuisines. In Korean cuisine, fiddleheads are eaten in a variety of ways: in bibimbap (a dish of rice, vegetables, eggs and sometimes meat, traditionally made with bracken fern fiddleheads (gosari) or with royal ferns (gobi namul) or sautéed. The Japanese eat bracken fern fiddleheads (warabi) as a vegetable and in soup – here’s an amazing recipe roundup of Japanese bracken dishes (the Japanese eat fiddleheads of other types of fern, too, including the ostrich fern). Warabi can also be found in Hawaii, where it is used in dishes like this warabi salad. Indonesians make a dish called gulai pakis that combines fiddleheads with coconut milk, lemongrass and turmeric, while the Thais eat ferns (pak kood) in soups, salads and steamed (and here’s a take on a Thai curry made with fiddleheads and shrimp). Fiddleheads of various species are also part of traditional Himalayan cuisine in India (called nigro or lingra); dishes include fiddlehead curry, a sautéed fiddlehead dish with cheese, fiddlehead pickles, and served as a vegetable.
 
Bracken fern rhizomes (roots) are also eaten – they are made into a type of super pricy starch in Japan (with which a super yummy-looking mochi is made) and were traditionally roasted in ashes by many Native American tribes in the Pacific Northwest.

Pro tips

To properly clean fiddleheads, fill a bowl or basin with water, add the fiddleheads, and then gently swish the veggies around. This removes the brown, papery bits that sometimes cling to them (just a part of the fern) and any dirt or grit that may be hidden inside those pretty little coils.

Storage

Fiddleheads don’t keep for long – stored in the crisper in your fridge, I’d keep them for no more than a couple of days. The stem ends will probably turn dark brown; just trim them before cooking.

Stretching your fresh food dollar though preservation

Fiddleheads are commonly frozen – here’s a great step-by-step how-to guide (with video!). They are also frequently pickled – here's a yummy-looking pickled fiddlehead recipe from Maine, and one from pickling expert Marisa McClellan.   

Recipe

Here I treat fiddleheads like green beans or asparagus and sauté them at high heat with lots of spicy chile paste. I love pairing nuts with green veggies – for crunch and for nutrition – and since I have to follow the fiddlehead party line and boil them before sautéing, crunch is something that is seriously needed.  Sambal ulek is an Indonesian chile paste, commonly found in Asian markets. Substitute chile-garlic paste or sriracha if you can’t find it. (Here’s a good info sheet on the differences between the three.)

Also: I like canola oil for stir-frying because of its neutral taste and high smoke point, but I try to only use organic canola because about 90 percent of canola oil grown in the US comes from GMO canola. So there’s that. Feel free to choose another oil with a high smoke point, like peanut.

Spicy Stir-Fried Fiddleheads with Chile Paste, Sesame Oil and Walnuts

Ingredients:

1 lb. ostrich fern fiddleheads, washed and stems trimmed
1 tablespoon sambal ulek (see note above)
1 teaspoon sesame oil
1 tablespoon soy sauce
1 teaspoon sugar
3 tablespoons organic canola or peanut oil
1 clove garlic, finely chopped (or pressed)
1/4 cup walnuts, lightly broken up
A few squirts fresh lime juice

Method:

  1. Have ready a bowl of ice water. Boil the cleaned and trimmed fiddleheads in a pot of lightly salted water for 10 minutes.  Drop into the ice water to stop the cooking. Drain well and pat thoroughly dry with paper towels.
  2. Stir together the sambal ulek, sesame oil, sugar and soy sauce.
  3. In a wok or wide sauté pan, heat the canola oil on high heat until hot but not smoking. Add the garlic and stir for a couple of seconds (don’t let it brown). Add the boiled and patted dry fiddleheads and stir for 1 minute. Add the walnuts and stir for 1-2 minutes more.
  4. Stir in the sambal ulek mixture and bring to a boil. Simmer over high heat until slightly reduced, about 1 minute.
  5. Remove from heat. Squeeze a few drops of lime juice over the fiddleheads.
    Serve with rice.

Serves 4 as a side dish.

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