While almost everyone has heard of “fiddlehead ferns,” most people think only of the Eastern fiddlehead, the ostrich fern (Matteucia struthiopteris), as edible.
But there is another widely consumed wild fern, the lady fern (Athyrium filix-femina), which grows along the west coast of North America from California to Alaska. Often simply called “Western fiddleheads,” lady fern fiddleheads differ only slightly from ostrich fern fiddleheads in appearance and flavor. Both fiddleheads have a distinctly “wild” green flavor that is often compared to asparagus, artichokes or green beans, but which, in fact, is unique among vegetables, whether cultivated or foraged. Firm and juicy in texture with a grassy-woodsy finish, Western fiddleheads tend to have a slightly more tannic edge than their Eastern cousins, but that mild bitterness is easily dissipated with proper preparation.
When briefly blanched in boiling water for a minute or two, the naturally occurring tannins of the Western fiddlehead are drawn off, allowing their pleasing flavor to develop fully. Once blanched, fiddleheads can be used in much the same way as green beans or asparagus. They’re especially delicious in uncomplicated preparations that require little or no additional cooking, which helps to preserve the tender, crunchy texture that makes fiddleheads so appealing.
Western fiddleheads are presented here in a warm salad, tossed in a classic tangy vinaigrette, then topped with a few simple garnishes that highlight their untamed, wild flavor. Enjoy them during their brief season each year from March through May.
Warm Fiddlehead Salad with Pistachios and Parmesan
- 1/2 lb fresh fiddleheads
- 1/2 cup pistachios, toasted
- 1 tsp olive oil
- 1 tsp lemon zest
- 1 cup croutons, or to taste
- Parmesan cheese, ungrated
- Dijon Vinaigrette (recipe follows)
- 1 clove garlic, finely minced
- 2 Tbsp Dijon mustard
- 2 Tbsp lemon juice
- 1/2 cup olive oil
- pinch each of salt & pepper
Trim the brown ends of the fiddleheads, if desired. Bring a large pot of salted water to a vigorous boil. Blanch the fiddleheads in the boiling salted water for about one minute. You’ll notice that the water turns dark from the naturally occurring tannins of the fiddlehead. Take care not to overcook the fiddleheads so they’ll retain as much of their crisp texture as possible. Quickly drain the fiddleheads, then plunge them immediately into a cold water bath to halt the cooking process. Drain well and set aside.
Mix the garlic, mustard, lemon juice, salt & pepper in a small bowl. Whisk in the olive oil in a slow, steady stream until the vinaigrette has emulsified.
Heat 1 teaspoon olive oil in a small sauté pan over medium heat. Add the fiddleheads and cook until heated through, about 2 minutes.
Remove the fiddleheads from the heat, and while still hot, toss with the vinaigrette and lemon zest. Divide between two serving plates. Top with croutons and toasted pistachios. Using a vegetable peeler, pare off several thin strips of parmesan cheese and drape over the top of the salad. Serve while still warm.
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