Fiddleheads – Picking, Cleaning, Eating

My friend April loves fiddleheads and suggested that if we go out for fiddleheads together the processing would go faster and we would enjoy ourselves. Last year I swore off fiddleheads as not worth the effort. But April’s enthusiasm did the job and we made a plan to pick this last Saturday.  It was an unbelievably gorgeous day, so the fact that we spent FIVE HOURS cleaning 12 pints worth wasn’t terrible, especially since we did it outside with pink wine. But still.

Cleaning

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April pulling chaff off in the first cleaning bowl. I’m on break-time wine.

We used a three-step rinse process. We dumped all the fiddleheads into the first bowl of water and rubbed along the stalks vigorously, plucking the chaff, removing the bulk of the brown papery covering. Then in the second bowl we went back over each fiddlehead and picked out any remaining chaff. Then they went in the third bowl to wait until we could rinse them off. Once done we stored them in gallon Ziplocs in the fridge. I’ll be using (and posting) April’s tarragon fiddlehead pickle recipe here in the next day or two. Even with the two of us cranking, it was a seriously labor-intensive effort. I was complaining about this on social media and someone suggested that you can actually shake off the chaff of dry fiddleheads. I haven’t tried it, but I may give it a go, I have a feeling it will still take a long time and maybe result in very tired arms. I have a feeling that after this weekend, I’m out of the fiddlehead game for a good long while. (Unless April plies me with pink wine and champagne again.)

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A bowl of cleaned fiddleheads.

Here’s the thing, they’re so dang beautiful.  And they taste pretty good.  And they’re very easy to pick.  So it’s really difficult to resist picking them.  Processing them with a buddy in the sun was great, but considering the fact that we had to spend an entire day picking and processing and we didn’t even get to pickling, when there are so many other foraged goods you can gather in a much shorter period of time, it just doesn’t seem like you get a lot of bang for your buck.

Picking

But if you’re into fiddleheads, right now is the time. At higher elevations they’re still in the ground, and at lower elevations they look great. You want to pick fiddleheads that are very tightly coiled and fairly new, so if you can find them when they’re just barely out of the ground, that’s perfect. Those are harder to spot, but as April pointed out, if you look for long dead brown fronds, that sort of look like long brown grass laying down, and then you poke around in the center of those mounds, that’s your best bet.

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Newly grown fiddleheads in the mound at the center of the remains of last-years fern fronds. Look for patches of these brown “grasses” and you’ll find fiddleheads.

When you reach out to pick a fiddlehead, give it a little squeeze to make sure that the fiddlehead is firmly wound. Sometimes they’ll look tight when they’re actually almost fully unfurled, and sometimes the center of the fiddlehead will have rotted out. A quick squeeze is all you need in the field, and then when you’re cleaning, you can pick out whatever part of the fiddlehead is no good. Primarily what you’re eating is the stem, although I only pinch off about a half inch to an inch below the coil, but you do want a little center of greens after you’re done cleaning.

There are debates about the health and carcinogenic properties of some fiddleheads, in general, the ones you want to pick around Southeast Alaska are from the Lady fern, Athyrium filix-femina, and will look almost exactly like you expect them to. They’re a close cousin to the Ostrich Fern, Matteuccia struthiopteris, which is the most commonly eaten fern in much the rest of the US and Canada. One of the raging debates is about whether fiddleheads cause gastrointestinal problems when they’re raw, so don’t eat them raw. The fern that most people are concerned about is the Bracken fern, pteridium aquiline, which has multiple tiny fiddleheads curled on the end of the stalk, whereas the Ostrich and Lady fern’s fiddleheads are usually around one inch or larger in diameter and there’s only one fiddlehead per stalk. The Bracken fern has been shown to have carcinogenic properties, although how much and if they all do, is up for debate.  Again, if you’ve ever seen a picture of a fiddlehead, you’ll know which fiddlehead you’re looking for as soon as you see it.  Supposedly, even the Bracken fern, once cooked, is fine to eat. I don’t pick them and don’t eat them, so I’ve got nothing to offer on that front. There’s also a fiddlehead that is super fuzzy and covered in a white covering, I think these are Sheild ferns, Dryopterus dilatata, which you can supposedly eat, but when you squeeze them they feel super soft and fuzzy and I can’t imagine the texture would be very good. I don’t know enough about those to recommend doing one thing or the other, so I stay away from them.

Regardless, as in most foraging, be careful of how much you take from one plant, keep it to two or three, and definitely no more than half of the fiddleheads you see coming from one mound.

Cooking

Fiddleheads are pretty tasty.  They have a texture similar to green beans and have a nice green taste with just a hint of bitter. I almost didn’t write up the following recipe because it was just a super-fast, what do I have around me, kind of recipe. But just to give you an idea of how easy these are to cook, I figured why not.

Siracha Fiddleheads and Bacon

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  • 4 slices bacon, diced
  • 4 cups cleaned fiddleheads
  • ¼ cup white wine
  • 1 tablespoon siracha, or more to taste
  • 1 teaspoon sugar
  • 2 tablespoons butter
  • Salt and pepper to taste

Sautee your bacon over medium heat for 6-7 minutes or until fat begins to look clear. Add fiddleheads on top stirring regularly for 4-5 minutes. Add white wine (helps if you’re drinking a glass of white wine, or Prosecco in my case, and just splash it in). Stir and cook for another 5 minutes. Turn heat up to medium-high and add Siracha and sugar and continue to stir until white wine has cooked down. Add butter and toss until butter is melted and sauce in the bottom of the pan looks thickened. Salt and pepper to taste!

I made this for a group of six and we ate it alongside grilled blackcod and an arugula and twisted stalk salad. Not to brag or anything.

Fiddleheads are very versatile and easy to cook, use them in anything you might normally use asparagus in. Personally, I can’t imagine ever chopping them up or blending them as the biggest part of their pleasure for me is their perfect beautiful coils, so I mainly eat them sauteed or steamed.

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