By now, most people casually interested in wild foods know fiddleheads. Fiddlehead ferns are a harbinger of Spring, along with ramps and morels they’re some of the most widely known and desired spring edibles, and I look forward to picking them every year. They’re also usually very expensive, since they have to be harvested wild.
There’s a couple different fiddles you can eat, but, since I live in Minnesota and hunt in the Midwest most of the time, I’m going to be talking specifically about the ostrich fern known as Matteuccia struthiopteris, in my opinion it’s the best fiddlehead for the table. Fiddleheads from California and the West Coast are lady ferns (Athyrium filix-femina, and are a slightly different species
Fiddleheads like to be in the shade, if you take a little jaunt in the woods, pretty much any where you go in the spring with woodsy trails will be able to give you some fiddles. Its important to know that you have the right ones though, as some of the other ones are toxic. There are some tell tale signs to know that you have a true Ostrich Fern. Expect them to start coming up in April or May, depending on the weather. You may also purchase them at farmer’s markets, and through coops, if you don’t feel like traipsing through the woods. Here are a couple things to keep in mind:
Harvesting and ID
1. The ferns should still be tightly coiled, you do not want to pick or eat any that are totally unfurled.
2. Ostrich ferns will have a “u” shaped stem, on its underside, it will not be solid–ever
3. The ferns will have a brown papery covering on it when young, not white, which should be be removed before consuming. White coating on your ferns means you have a different species, typically something like Osmunda spp, or the interupted fern–don’t eat those.
Because of their interesting shape, and the fact that their integrity is easily held, (unlike asparagus) fiddleheads make great pickles.. Yes they will lose their color and turn a shade of off green, but they will make a wonderful alternative to canned asparagus or green beans, which can get fibrous very easily. See a recipe for pickling fiddleheads here.
A basic method for cooking is blanching. Simply put the fiddles in boiling, salted water for 2 minutes then shock in an ice bath. Blanching locks in and preserves the green color, as well as par cooking them a bit so they don’t discolor water they come in contact with if they’re to be used in soup or broth. After you blanch some, take a look at the water that’s left over, and you’ll understand what I mean.
Blanching fiddleheads purges them of the quality that darkens water, after they’re blanched, they can be added to all kinds of things, salads, soups and stews, but do make sure not to cook them too long, you want them to be a little crisp.
Eating the Whole Fiddle
Most people just want the curled crosier, or fiddle. Guess what though? The whole shebang, long stem and all is edible, and you shouldn’t throw it away after you trim them. Chop up excess stem and add it to a veggie saute.
This is the most common problem with cooking these I see. Some people really don’t like fiddleheads, and after having them prepared by someone else for me a few different times, I can understand why. Part of the problem is that people don’t understand how they should be cooked, it’s not their fault, fiddles are an obscure vegetable, and take skill to prepare well. Just like any other vegetable, they need to be cooked with care. When fiddle ferns are overcooked, they’re soggy, limp and disgusting. Sauteed for too long their heavy and oily. Cook your fiddles, but don’t murder them.
Can you eat them raw?
Some people don’t have a problem eating them raw, I’ve heard some people do–probably from eating more than you should (I know for a fact a few raw vegans have gotten sick from eating raw ostrich ferns). You can sure try them raw, but start in small amounts. I know a few chefs that like to eat fiddleheads raw, and one that even serves them raw, but, the flavor isn’t going to be for everyone. Eating a few nibbles probably won’t hurt you, and I know plenty of people who do, but they taste far better cooked than raw, and there’s no worries about tummy-aches that way.
Are fiddleheads poisonous?
There’s lots of rumors and heresay that either some are poisonous, only poisonous in some areas, or that certain species are poisonous. The problem, according to a number of foraging authorities, Sam Thayer being one, is that many people, even experienced foragers, identify the wrong type of fiddlehead, and eat them. After they get sick, they spread the word that fiddleheads are poisonous, and then they tell their friends, and their friends tell their friends. You get the idea.
Bracken Fern or Pteridium aquilinum (see picture above) is another species of edible fern that grows in my area, and around the country. Long eaten in the Far East, especially in Korea, these are one of the components of the traditional dish Bibimbap, and are widely consumed and sold dried in Asian markets across the United States–just look for bags of things that have the words “fern bracken” on them. But, there’s also information out there that says bracken ferns are cancerous, and shouldn’t be eaten. I know plenty of people who eat these ferns after cooking, and are fine, but they also aren’t eating them every single day, in large amounts. Like a lot of things, dosage is important, and we technically eat alot of things that could be “linked” to cancer. Ethnobotanical evidence, like with a lot of wild foods, is a useful tool. If I could find more bracken ferns, I would probably be eating them.
- Fiddlehead ferns cleaned and trimmed, an inch or two of stem remaining
- Bring some water to a boil in a large pot, add the salt until the water tastes "like the sea". Make sure there is at least twice as much boiling water as there is fiddleheads.
- Add the fiddleheads and cook until tender, exactly 1.5 minutes.
- Transfer the fiddleheads to an ice bath, or very cold water to halt their cooking.
- Drain the fiddleheads thoroughly, then they are ready for whatever preparation you want.