In Vermont, we can always tell when spring is truly in the air by looking down along streams, river beds, and swampy areas. What we’re looking for are bright green spirals pushing up from the ground. These are fiddleheads, and they are the furled fronds of young ferns. Did you know all ferns have a fiddlehead stage? But it’s the Ostrich fern that’s prized for its tastiness, a fresh flavor that’s often compared to a combination of broccoli, asparagus, and spinach. If you look closely or if you happen upon a fiddlehead that’s starting to unfurl, you can tell how the frond will turn into a leafy fern. But we’re here to talk about what to do before the fiddleheads turn into ferns.
As you can tell, timing is key to harvesting. If you blink, you’ll miss their season! You’re looking for tightly furled fiddleheads. Their shape is often described as the scroll-shaped end of a violin or the end of a shepherd’s crook. And they’re not hard to find, once you know what you are looking for. However, seasoned foragers tend to keep their treasure troves a secret! They also keep record of the “good spots” so they can return to them, year after year.
Once you find a patch of these curled tight ferns, you’ll want to examine the crop closely. There are more than 10,000 species of ferns but only the Ostrich fern (Matteuccia struthiopteris) is safe to eat. You’ll want to do your research before you head out foraging. We recommend checking online guides and foraging books—and we’ve taken a few foraging classes from experts, as well. With a little information, you can easily start to identify the Ostrich fern’s fiddleheads. They have bright green coils with thin, brown papery scales and they have a deep, U-shaped groove in their stem.
Once you have your stash of fiddleheads, you’ll need to decide how to eat them. They’re delicious steamed and topped with hollandaise sauce, and they’re quite a treat when lightly battered and fried until crispy and served with lemony mayonnaise.
Fiddleheads need a little extra care when being prepared but if you can boil water, you’re good to go. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) investigated an outbreak of illnesses over a decade ago after several people ate raw or lightly cooked fiddleheads in restaurants. Since then, they recommend cooking fiddleheads and not eating them raw.
To properly prepare fiddleheads, we remove all the brown scales, rinse the fiddleheads thoroughly, and boil them in salted water for about 15 minutes. At this point, you can chill them and eat them in a salad, serve them warm with butter and lemon, or make the batter we talked about and fry up a batch of tempura fiddleheads. To us the extra effort and care is worth it because they taste like spring, and once you taste their bright “green” earthy flavor you’ll understand why so many people equate fiddlehead season with the advent of spring!