Fiddleheads, the other edible fern

It’s not real risotto, but still delicious.

Fiddleheads are local food that announces the arrival of spring. Sprouts of ostrich ferns picked in the wild, they are a culinary and mathematical delight–such taste and proportions the (Golden Mean). Fiddleheads are similar to their fern-cousin asparagus, but their the texture and delicacy are closer to spinach. They are always eaten cooked and best not overcooked since they lose their colour, texture, and taste.

There is something distinctly Canadian about them, and here in New Brunswick they are the stuff of roadside attractions and statues. A cookbook devoted to fiddleheads has a Maliseet recipe that is potentially hundreds or thousands of years old. Douglas Coupland had a picture of McCain’s frozen fiddleheads in his art exhibition Souvenir of Canada, making fiddleheads like most things Canadian–well esteemed domestically but unknown to the rest the world. For foraged food, they are quite inexpensive. Prices this year were in the $4 – $5 per pound range, and I bought a three-pound bag for $10.

Spring was late and the first fiddleheads were bland and woody, but thankfully not portentous. After an extra week in the ground, they were perfect for eating. So far, I’ve made boiled fiddleheads, fiddlehead soup, eggs benedict with fiddleheads, and fiddlehead risotto.

Some basics of preparation underly all these recipes. First, the fiddleheads must be trimmed and cleaned. This gets rid of any of the less tasty bits of residual forest. Purists will say that they should only be steamed, but in my opinion rarely have vegetables benefitted more from boiling in salty water. Mine get cooked for five minutes in water seasoned with sea salt.

My variation on fiddlehead soup is informed by the advice of a departed friend who, when entertaining, believed that guests should be surprised by powerful and unusual flavours. Truly, until I tasted something he made, I had never tasted anything like it before. Perhaps my friend was influenced by his classical background and depictions of Roman feasts with sucker-punch flavours. My soup adopts this idea in spirit by using juniper berries, asafoetida, and ramps.

Nature often provides natural accompaniments so I try to add some forest-like flavour. Few spices add mystery and aroma better than freshly-ground juniper berries. The soup starts with the leftover liquid from boiling potatoes and other vegetables. To that I add some vegetable or chicken bouillon paste, a diced and thoroughly sautéed onion, asafoetida powder, the usual host of seasonings (white & black pepper, bay, and herbes de provence), and five or six ground juniper berries. In go some chopped peeled potatoes and the whole thing gets boiled until the potatoes start to lose their shape. Add separately boiled fiddleheads and the soup is ready to be garnished with cream. Mustard can also add flavour and pungency, and I have eaten the soup with quinoa instead of potatoes. Since they have been in season, I also add some ramp purée. And the forest comes together in a bowl. The result is complex, earthy, and hearty.

After making some hollandaise sauce for that other fern (asparagus), I used the leftovers to make eggs benedict with fiddleheads. The hollandaise was just starting to separate since it was reheated, but who cares? Butter, eggs, lemon, minced shallot, and lavender blossoms always taste good. The fiddleheads were lovely compared to a pile of limp spinach, making this improvisation a success.

Absolutely better than soggy spinach or perfectly cooked spinach.

Real risotto often doesn’t work for me, so I make an improvised version in a rice cooker. Rice cooked with lobster stock with fiddleheads is a decadent addition to other food and a meal by itself. I’ve made this recipe and added some corn for colour and taste. Roger Ebert would certainly approve of this use of “The Pot”. It’s lobster time here as well, so some crustacean bits work nicely.

The last way that I’ve enjoyed fiddleheads is just by themselves. They are very good cooked and served hot with butter, salt, and pepper. This is how I ate them growing up and how most people encounter them. Were I to feel fancy, a subtle vinaigrette complements well. My intention this year was to try making quickles (quick pickles) from them, but it didn’t happen because they were too good fresh.