Fiddlehead Ferns, Found along the Shenipsit Trail in East Hampton
May 3, 2009
It is indeed rare to be able to talk about a unique New England edible woodland plant. Fiddleheads (actually Ostrich Ferns I think) are found in more places than the northeast, but we seem to have the market cornered (in North America) when it comes to eating them.
Wikipedia says: “Fiddleheads are a traditional dish of New England in the United States, and of Quebec and the Maritimes in Canada. The Canadian village of Tide Head, New Brunswick, bills itself as the Fiddlehead Capital of the World.”
Though available regionally in some supermarkets and restaurants, fiddleheads aren’t cultivated and are available only seasonally – as in, for about a 2 weeks per year. That’s why they are so expensive if you happen to see them in a Whole Foods or epicurean market. I know the Asian markets around here sell them frozen, but who wants to eat frozen ferns?
I happen to know where three particularly large groves of fiddleheads grow, along the trails I hike around the state. One patch is in Burlington and the other two down in East Hampton. If you find a patch, you’ve most likely found enough for dinner as they grow in bunches.
Cover model this month: Edible Toronto and Connecticut Woodlands (with a fine article from yours truly)
After a couple trips out to Burlington before they were ready, I finally hiked across a TON of them in prime picking form in East Hampton in early May. I foraged as many as would fit in my protective Coffee Cup/Ziploc thingamajing I rigged up and excitedly showed my bounty to Hoang upon arriving home.
And so, with apologies to my friend B-Side and his Adventures in Domesticity, here is my first (and probably last) fiddlehead experience.
I’d read some scary stories about mature fiddleheads being toxic and improper cooking of the good stuff yields a bitter and gritty dish. When cooking fiddleheads, first remove all the yellow/brown skin, then boil the sprouts twice with a change of water between boilings. Removing the water reduces the bitterness and the content of tannins and toxins. The Center for Disease Control associated a number of food-borne illness cases with fiddleheads in the early nineties.
Cleaned and ready to go
Exciting! Tip: To remove the brownish papery stuff, soak them for a few minutes first. Otherwise, you’ll be there all day. I opted for the easiest and most traditional preparation.
1 pound fiddlehead ferns
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 cloves finely chopped garlic (optional)
1¼ cup pancetta or bacon, cut into 1¼ inch cubes (optional)
Kosher or sea salt and ground black pepper
Steaming… Boiling them is for sissies
I think I should have boiled/steamed them again at this point. Instead I just sautéed them up.
I called Hoang into the kitchen and we sampled.
Something went wrong. They were too bitter for my taste, but again, many recipes call for double boiling and changing the tannish tannin water that results from cooking. I did neither. No matter how much butter and salt I added, they just weren’t doing it for me.
So there you have it, if not a unique Connecticut experience, a New Englandy/Maritimes one nonetheless.