Fiddleheads taste like the woodlands in spring time – fresh, green and exuberantly wild. The flavor of fiddleheads is often compared to asparagus, artichokes or green beans, but such comparisons fall short. The truth is, fresh fiddleheads taste like nothing else.
Only a few of the many species of ferns are considered to be edible and of those, only two or three are widely consumed. If the best known, and most eaten, is the Eastern fiddlehead, the Ostrich Fern (Matteuccia struthiopteris), the second-best known has to be the Western Lady Fern (Athyrium filix-femina).
All fiddleheads should be cooked before being eaten, both to kill any bacteria and to remove undesirable tannins, which while not poisonous, can be bitter and even mildly toxic. This usually involves the initial step of blanching, a quick dip of 1 -3 minutes in briskly boiling water, followed by a plunge into an icewater bath to halt the cooking process. Once the fiddleheads have been blanched and drained, they can be eaten as is, or further prepared in a variety of ways.
Those who are already familiar with Eastern fiddleheads will notice some differences when trying Western Lady Fern fiddleheads for the first time. They look different; Western fiddleheads are lighter in color with brown flecks, are generally a little smaller and have a little more chaff than their Eastern cousins. Lady Fern fiddleheads also tend to be slightly more bitter, though not unpleasantly so after blanching, and have a slightly more “grassy” flavor. To experienced foragers and other lovers of wild foods, that’s just a natural part of their appeal.
Fiddleheads go very well with another spring delicacy – the morel mushroom. Here we’ve paired them together with pancetta and swiss cheese on a simple puff pastry tart. Frozen puff pastry makes it quick and easy, but if you’re feeling slightly ambitious, you can make your own rough or “shaggy” puff pastry from scratch with nothing more than flour, butter, salt and water – and a little time.
Morel, Fiddlehead & Pancetta Tart
- 1 tablespoon olive oil, plus a little more, if needed
- 1 oz pancetta, diced
- 4 oz fresh morel mushrooms, or 1/2 oz dried morel mushrooms
- 1/2 pound fiddleheads
- 1/2 package of puff pastry, thawed or 1/2 recipe of homemade rough puff pastry
- salt and pepper to taste
- 1 cup Swiss cheese, grated
Pour 4 cups cold water into a bowl and stir in 4 tablespoons salt until dissolved. Add the fresh morels and gently swirl in the water. Allow to stand for 15 – 20 minutes. This will help to flush out any “hitchhikers” and forest debris. Drain well and place on paper towels to continue draining. Slice into halves or quarters and set aside.
If using dried morels, immerse them in very hot tap water for 20 – 30 minutes or until completely sofened. Drain well, reserving the soaking liquid for another use, such as in sauces, soups or stews. Rinse the reconstituted morels briefly under cool running water to flush out any remaining grit or forest debris. Place on paper towels to drain completely, then slice into halves or quarters.
Heat the oil in a pan over medium heat and add the diced pancetta. Reduce the heat to low and cook until slightly browned, about 5 minutes. Remove from the heat, drain the pancetta on paper towels and set aside.
Return the pan to the burner and add the morels. Add a little more olive oil, if necessary. Cook for 5 – 10 minutes, then remove from the heat.
Blanch the fiddleheads in boiling water for 1 minute, then quickly drain and plunge them into cold water. Drain and pat dry. You’ll notice that the blanching water turns a tea-like shade of brown; this is a good thing. It means that the bitter tannins that naturally occur in fiddleheads have been leached out. This blanching liquid should be discarded once it has cooled.
Roll out the puff pastry until 1/4 inch thick. Place on a greased baking sheet. Sprinkle the grated cheese over the pastry. Scatter the cooked pancetta evenly over the top. Distribute the fiddleheads and morels evenly across the pastry and season with a little salt & pepper.
Preheat the oven to 425 F and bake until the pastry is golden brown and the cheese is melted & bubbling, about 25 minutes. Cut the pastry into pieces and serve warm or at room temperature.
Makes a great appetizer or served with a tossed salad for a light lunch.
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