Fiddleheads are one of our favorite wild spring foods. They look cool, but taste even better.
In case you’re unfamiliar with them, fiddleheads are the tightly coiled emerging shoots of certain edible ferns, the choicest of which are the ostrich fern (matteucia struthiopteris), frequently referred to as the ‘Eastern Fiddlehead.’ While there are a number of other edible ferns, the Eastern fiddlehead is arguably the best tasting and probably the most widely available, growing wild across much of the northeastern US and southeastern Canada. Much of the commercial harvest in the United States takes place in Maine, Vermont and New Hampshire and in Canada, in the provinces of Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Quebec and Ontario.
If you’re lucky and live in their growing range and know what you’re doing, you can easily forage wild fiddleheads for yourself. If you don’t, you may be able to find them fresh in produce markets during their brief season (late April – early June), or you can order them online from reputable vendors such as Earthy.com. When out of season, frozen fiddleheads are a palatable substitute for fresh, but avoid the canned variety which are usually bland, overcooked and insipid.
Basic Preparation of Fiddleheads
Fiddleheads can be prepared in any number of ways. You can use them much as you would such vegetables as green beans or asparagus, and their flavor has frequently been compared to both. But make no mistake – their wild green flavor is absolutely unique and highly enjoyable.
Before using them in any recipe, you should first blanch fresh fiddleheads. Fresh fiddleheads can be high in tannin, a mildly astringent substance that naturally occurs in many plants, including tea and tree bark. A quick blanching (30 – 60 seconds) in boiling salted water, followed by a plunge into an ice water bath, is all it takes to extract most of the tannins and ready your fiddleheads for use in your favorite dish.
Never eat fresh fiddleheads raw. While there have been several reported cases of gastrointestinal upset associated with the consumption of raw fiddleheads, the most likely cause was bacterial contamination and not the fiddleheads themselves. Nevertheless, better safe than sorry.
Over the years, I’ve prepared fiddleheads in many different ways – stir frys, soups, sautes and salads – and have enjoyed them all. But until now, I’d never tried one of the standard home-style fiddlehead preparations – pickling. After a little experimentation, I came up with the following recipe. While I’ve heard that fiddleheads can be preserved in jars using a standard home-canning process, I really like the freshness and crunch of these quick and easy to make refrigerator-style pickled fiddleheads. I’m guessing that you will too.
(Note: For a detailed description of fiddleheads and more ideas for their use, see an earlier blog post, “Fiddling Around with Fresh Fiddleheads”.)
Quick Pickled Fiddleheads
- 1 lb fiddlehead ferns, rinsed and trimmed
- 1 small shallot, thinly sliced
- 2 cups white wine vinegar (substitute cider or rice wine vinegar)
- 1 tsp yellow mustard seeds
- 2 star anise
- 1 tsp Rainbow Peppercorn blend
- 1 tsp salt
- ¼ tsp crushed chile peppers
- 1 2-inch cinnamon stick
- ¼ cup sugar, Demerara or Turbinado
- 1 bay leaf
- 1 cup water
Rinse the fiddleheads under cold running water and trim the broken ends with a sharp knife.
Heat a large pot of salted water (about 1 Tbsp per quart) to boiling. Blanch the fiddleheads in the boiling water for about 30 seconds, then drain immediately and plunge them into ice water to stop the cooking process. Drain again thoroughly and place into a large non-reactive heatproof bowl.
Peel and thinly slice the shallot into rings and toss into the bowl with the fiddleheads.
In a large, non-reactive pot, heat the remaining ingredients to boiling, then reduce heat and simmer for about 5 minutes. Pour the hot vinegar/spice mixture over the fiddleheads. Allow to stand until cooled to room temperature. Cover tightly or ladle into jars and refrigerate for up to two weeks.