Fiddling with fiddleheads

A seasonal treat, explained
By TODD RICHARD  |  May 28, 2008
FIDDLE ME THIS What to do with spring’s bounty?

Fiddle Fest: a Celebration of Spring Food with Slow Food Portland | 4-7 pm June 1 | Southern Maine Community College dining hall, Fort Rd, South Portland | $20 | 207.523.0106
Maine’s food seasons keep a much more rigid schedule than the weather might allow you to imagine. Our fisheries (like my fave, Maine shrimp) are governed by law, but fiddleheads are legislated exclusively by nature.

A quick review: Fiddleheads are not bugs (those are greenheads), and not a popcorn snack (that’s Fiddle Faddle). The fiddlehead is a young ostrich fern, plucked before it unfurls. The fiddlehead is Maine’s simplest, and quite possibly Maine’s most revered, delicacy. They are green coils ranging in size from one inch to a few, and have a large spinach-like stem. The ferns’ rarity and short growing season have elevated them to the status shared by other foragables such as morels and truffles.

Fiddleheads reach the “sweet spot” in their growth in May, after the thaw and when the ground is plenty damp. These ferns often grow in riverbanks, marshes, and other wetlands — the uninitiated wouldn't even notice them, much less consider eating them.

Market prices tend to fluctuate wildly, so feel free to shop around. A recent visit to Rosemont Market on Brighton Avenue in Portland found them flush with fresh fiddleheads and selling them at $4.99 a pound. (They were also at the Public Market House for $5.99.)

Once you’ve secured your ferns, the question remains: What next? Intimidation is inevitable when experimenting with a new ingredient, but remember, it’s basically a glorified weed. That puts things in perspective — and perhaps removes some of the delicateness from this delicacy. Before doing anything else, remove any brown husk-like scales and wash the fiddleheads thoroughly.

From here, there are several traditional preparations that Mainers have enjoyed for generations. These methods are great as-is, or with your own flair. Almost every recipe calls for fiddleheads to be blanched first. Place clean fiddleheads in a pot of salted boiling water for one minute and then rinse them in cold water to stop the cooking. This blanching softens the fiddleheads, which can then be sautéed in a pan with butter, chilled and dressed as a salad, or eaten right away.

A terrific twist to tradition took form as an Asian-inspired fiddlehead salad. After blanching and placing in ice water, spice up the fiddleheads with a simple dressing of soy sauce, olive oil, rice-wine vinegar, cracked pepper, and hints of sesame oil and sriracha. Shake the dressing to fully emulsify and then toss with the fiddleheads. Serve cold as a great accompaniment to grilled meats and seafood.

A popular preparation is to pickle the fiddleheads, saving them for use and enjoyment in the winter. The traditional pickling process can be prohibitively labor-intensive, but a “quick pickle” works great, and circumvents the jarring, boiling, sterilizing, and other time-intensive steps. Boil a half-cup of vinegar with two generous tablespoons of sugar and a teaspoon of salt. Add a whole clove of garlic, a bit of pepper, allspice, and celery seed. When all the sugar and salt has dissolved, pour the mixture into a shallow dish over the blanched fiddleheads and send to the refrigerator. Add your own blend of veggies or spices for a special spin.

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