There isn’t anything which says spring as well as fiddleheads, that most fanciful crosier atop the ostrich fern (Matteuccia struthiopteris). Growing wildly, with abandon, throughout Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Ontario and other parts of the temperate region of the northern hemisphere, fiddleheads need to be part of your spring diet. Just when I have had slightly more than enough of winter, this familiar and much-welcomed spiraled green, novel and tasty, appears in the market.
The flavour of fiddleheads has been likened to asparagus, with a slightly nutty taste, and to artichoke and okra. I concur with those who describe the taste of fiddleheads as the taste of spring!
You can pick your own fiddleheads if you know where to look and when to catch them unawares at just the right moment in their growth. Along river banks and in wet areas is your best bet. You can find great information about harvesting wild fiddleheads at Earthy Delights.
In the market, there are some things to watch for:
- A tight coil and only an inch or two of stem beyond the coil
- The coil should be one to one and a half inches in diameter
- There may be brown papery chaff around the head. This is okay, much like an onion skin, you will remove it before cooking
- Choose firm, bright-green, tightly-curled fiddleheads; the little brown shells still intact. They should be crisp
Handling fiddleheads is quite straight forward:
- Remove any stem in excess of 2 inches.
- Rub any clinging papery chaff off by hand.
- Wash the fiddleheads in several changes of cold water to remove any dirt or grit; drain them completely.
- Use them fresh, and soon after harvest.
- To store fresh fiddleheads, keep them cool and tightly wrapped. Trim the stem again just before using since the cut end will darken in storage. They may be kept in refrigeration for about 10 days, although the flavour will be best if used directly upon harvest or purchase.
Nutritional value is packed into these tightly wound coils. Aside from a robust taste of spring, fiddleheads boast some unique nutritional qualities. Dr. John DeLong, of the Atlantic Food and Horticulture Research Centre in Kentville, Nova Scotia, has conducted years of research on fiddleheads. They are a nutritional source of fibre, a good source of vitamins A and C, an excellent source of potassium, and are rich in niacin, iron, magnesium and phosphorus. Better yet, they are low in sodium, high in omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids and a terrific source of antioxidants. Dr. DeLong further found them to be surprisingly high in alpha lineolic acid, or ALA, an essential fatty acid we can get only from food. They also have a small amount of EPA or eicosapentaenoic, which is common in fish but rare in plants.
What does all this mean? It means fiddleheads are not just good tasting, they are good for you!
In the kitchen, fiddleheads should always be cooked but can be eaten hot or cold.
- Serve them with a vinaigrette or a cream sauce
- Toss them into a stir fry or a pasta dish as a tasty and elegant visual pleaser
- Steam them as a side
- Add them to soups or omelettes
- Marry them well with cheeses or tomato sauces
My favourite way of consuming fiddleheads is straightforward, relatively unadorned and without presumption. Steamed to a tender crispness and served as a (sizable) side with freshly squeezed lemon and cracked pepper. Mouth watering goodness.
However, fiddleheads lend their goodness to a multitude of uses. You’ll find some must-try recipes here.
After my next satisfying feed of the unadorned variety of fiddleheads, I’ve found a soup recipe I’m going to try:
Lemony Fiddlehead Soup
Rinse the fiddleheads under running water and rub off the papery outer layer if it is still attached. Cut off the brown ends right before cooking, about a half inch from the head.
1 pound fiddleheads
6 cups low sodium vegetable stock
1 large onion chopped
1/2 cup rice – try wild rice or basmati
1/2 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice
salt and fresh black pepper to taste
Cover the fiddleheads with water and bring to a boil; cook for 5 minutes. Drain.
In a large pot, bring stock to a boil. Add onions and rice; simmer for 20 minutes.
Add fiddleheads and lemon juice. Continue to simmer, avoiding a boil, for an additional 10 minutes.
Add salt and pepper to taste. Serve hot and enjoy.