Ode to fiddleheads

Going green
By DEIRDRE FULTON  |  May 13, 2009

Do you have pteridomania? For roughly five weeks every spring, New England appears to be afflicted with this pandemic — the Victorian-era craze of collecting both live ferns and items bedecked with fern motifs. The culprit of contagion: fiddlehead ferns.

Furled, they appear like something from Miss Havisham's attic, enveloped in a crinkly, paper-thin, yellowed layer. They will be lovely, once they stretch their fronds — akin to flamenco fans or peacock feathers, in their vibrancy and intricate details — but the Matteuccia struthiopteris, or ostrich fern, is best enjoyed, gustatorily at least, pre-furling. New Englanders (and Canadians, and even Hawaiians, with a slightly different species) have been doing so for more than a century, relishing this stretch of April and May when fiddlehead ferns poke their delicate, spiraled heads out of the ground.

I was desirous of an authentic fiddlehead experience, from start to finish. A helpful co-worker directed me toward a primo harvesting spot, in the deeps of South Portland's 40-acre Hinckley Park. (Paid fiddlehead foragers gather thousands of pounds of the young stalks per season; there are currently Craigslist postings in Maine, Massachusetts, and Vermont looking for pickers.) Near a stream, I found the mother lode, and picked a small bunch to cook up for that evening's dinner, following the advice that it's best to use fiddleheads as soon as possible after harvesting. (Incidentally, the walk itself was lovely, and I spied both ducks and turtles.)

Whether you collect them in the woods yourself, or purchase a bundle at the farmers' market (they'll be available for only a short while longer), there are several ways in which to prepare fiddleheads, named for their resemblance to the scrolled tip of a violin. Some people like to pickle them. Others like to sauté them simply, as I did, with garlic, shallots, and olive oil. The Vitamin-C-filled coils are frequently likened to asparagus and artichokes (I disagree with the second comparison; I personally think they taste like moss smells), so whatever you do with those (throw them into salads or pasta dishes? bake them in quiche or pizza?), you can try with fiddleheads. I bet they'd be delicious in an omelette. Grab a bunch at the Portland Farmers' Market on Wednesday in Monument Square or Saturday in Deering Oaks Park, and do your own experimentation.

• Speaking of the fresh tastes of spring, did you hear that it's getting easier to use Electronic Benefit Transfer cards (the digitized evolution of food stamps) at Maine's farmers' markets? This is great news for nutrition advocates in Maine, who have long expressed their frustration with the fact that healthy food is perceived as the province of the elite. According to the state Department of Agriculture, several markets are trying models where they share one machine among all sellers. At the Portland Farmers' Market, it varies from stand to stand, according to market representative Larry Bruns. Now, there are ideas in the works to make Community Supported Agriculture accessible for EBT clients as well.

• If the mention of CSAs made you break out into oh-no-I-haven't-reserved-my-CSA-spot-yet sweats, never fear. Visit the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association (mofga.org) to find contact information for CSAs near you. Some will still have slots available. While you're at it, learn more about summer seafood shares and Community Supported Fisheries via the Northwest Atlantic Marine Alliance (namanet.org).

Here's to a summer of healthy eating and sustainably produced food!

Deirdre Fulton can be reached at dfulton@phx.com.

  Topics: Lifestyle Features , Nature and the Environment, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Plants,  More more >
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