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Fiddlehead Ferns: A sign that spring has finally arrived

May 5, 2008

Even though it was cold and rainy all weekend, I knew spring had truly arrived when we went to the market yesterday: The place was full of bright shiny produce the likes of which haven’t been seen around here for over six months. I was giddy, and my carefully planned (short) grocery list was quickly forgotten. And in the midst of the bountiful bounty, an unmistakable sign of spring sat, quietly curled up and waiting for me to discover it.

I had never heard of fiddlehead ferns before moving to Boston, and had no idea anyone would ever want to eat any kind of fern. When Mr. X pointed them out to me a few years ago, I thought for sure these east coast people were insane, but I’m nothing if not adventurous (if only culinarily) so I bought some, sauteed them, and realized that even if these east coast people are crazy, they are totally right about the fiddlehead ferns. They taste so fresh and green and almost grassy, they are a wonderful arbiter of warmer (and better fed) days ahead.

What I like even more about fiddlehead ferns is they are only available for a week or two of the year. There are a few different species of fern that are edible, and the most common in the New England are are Ostrich fern fiddleheads. They have to be picked at a specific moment in their growth cycle, before they begin to unfurl into their adult ferny figure, or they are inedible. So if you don’t see them in that week or two in early May, you are out of luck for another year. I feel very happy when I do find them, and I’ve come to feel that eating them every spring is the signal to my freezing winter-sodden brain that the bad times are over.
Fiddleheads don’t need much more than a quick saute with some olive oil and salt, but for lunch this afternoon I decided to go just a step further and toss the sauteed fiddleheads with a light garlicky cream sauce and some pasta. Just what I needed to survive any remaining cold days and get me through this next week, when I will be finished with the semester and ready for summer.

Fiddlehead Ferns and Orechiette in a Light Cream Sauce

  • 1 T. olive oil
  • 1 large clove of garlic, minced
  • about 1 c. fiddlehead ferns (rinse them well under cool water to wash off any plant residue)
  • salt and pepper
  • 1/2 c. heavy cream
  • about 1 T. chopped fresh tarragon
  • about 2 T. pecorino romano or parmesan
  • 1-2 c. cooked orechiette

Heat the olive oil in a medium skillet, and once hot, add the garlic. Saute for about thirty seconds, then add the fiddleheads and a bit of salt and pepper. They will probably release a bunch of water initially. Just let them cook, stirring occasionally, until the water is evaporated off, probably about six minutes or so.

Add the cream and the tarragon to the skillet, and whisk for a bit over medium-high heat. Let the cream boil and bubble to thicken it up for a nice sauce. Just leave it be for the most part, let it cook and bubble and thicken for about four minutes. Stir in some freshly grated parmesan or romano, and then a bit more salt (cream sauces usually need extra), and then add the cooked pasta. I like to let it all sit for a minute or two off the heat, just to let the sauce thicken a bit more and coat the pasta.

Fiddleheads are also excellent marinated (and apparently pickled, or so I’ve read), and they can be steamed or lightly roasted. I found a recipe for Spring Ragout with Fiddlehead Ferns and Morels, and it sounds kind of spectacular, but I think we’ve discussed my lack of luck finding morels. Maybe next year.

For anyone else who desperately needs a quick dose of spring and the promise of warmer days to come, I recommend heading out now to your local market to look for fiddleheads. I found them at a relatively big supermarket, so they shouldn’t be too impossible, at least not on the east coast. And if you have a favorite preparation for fiddleheads, or another arbiter-of-spring meal you look forward to, I’d love to hear it!

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. Crimson permalink
    May 5, 2008 5:33 pm

    You know what says spring to me? Tacos. And I am not writing this today because it is Cinco de Mayo, but really, every year when I really believe the spring has arrived I make tacos. Glorious Tacos.

  2. Emily permalink
    May 7, 2008 11:15 am

    Do you think we would be able to get fiddleheads out here in Seattle?

  3. May 7, 2008 8:28 pm

    I love fiddleheads and actually can pick them near my parents house. This dish sounds wonderful!

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  1. Fiddlehead Ferns, at last « The Kitchen Illiterate

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