I firmly believe that the true romance of fiddleheads hinges on the fact that they are impossible to find for most of the year. While they are very pretty to look at, with their furled, bright green heads — and their flavour is quite appealing — what really matters is that there are only two or three weeks in May in which Canadians can enjoy the fresh vegetable. Yes, I’m wondering — if fiddleheads were available all summer long, would anyone even care about them?
Cooking and eating a big mess of fiddleheads, however, has become a vernal ritual right up there with opening up the cottage and cleaning off the barbecue. And as I get older, and time flies by, I cling to these rituals more and more tenaciously to distract myself from the certain knowledge that “tempus fugit(s)” ever more swiftly.
The fiddlehead is the early tender growth of the Matteuccia Struthiopteris, or for those of us who are taxonomically challenged, the ostrich fern. They grow wild in damp places, along fresh waterways in the Maritime Provinces of Canada and the North Eastern United States. And while they are also native to the U. S., they somehow seem as Canadian as the butter tart or beaver tails. (The town of Tide Head, New Brunswick bills itself as “the fiddlehead capital of the world.”)
Fiddleheads grow quickly up to 6 inches overnight and must be picked at the perfect height in order to catch them before they unfurl. Their harvest has been delayed this year because of the harsh winter, according to NorCliff Farms Inc. NorCliff Farms are situated on the shores of Lake Erie in Wainfleet, Ontario and are the largest, most well known local growers and distributors of fiddleheads. Usually the season starts a couple of days, on either side of the 5th of May.
While the fiddlehead lacks the casual laid back insouciance of a tousle-headed stalk of celery, or the suave elegance of the asparagus spear, the appearance of the fiddlehead is one of its greatest assets. The graceful furl, like the scrolled head of a violin, and the bright emerald green colour, makes it a charming addition to the composition of any dinner plate. The flavour is unique. Almost a combination of asparagus and a little bitter edge of rapini? Or, perhaps, an earthy taste, redolent of wild mushrooms? It is an agreeable, mild flavour that is very delectable and that hints at the cool, shaded woodlands in which the plants are found.
This is also a vegetable that is amazingly nutritious. Fiddleheads, apparently have a very high iron content; you will notice how, once the crop is harvested the exposed tip oxidizes. You must trim off this brownish green tip before cooking. And — move over blueberries — fiddleheads have twice the antioxidant activity of this famously healthful fruit. They are a great souce of vitamins and minerals such as: fibre, niacin, vitamin A, vitamin C, potassium, riboflavin, calcium and phosphorus. And they are also high in omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids which have high anti-inflammatory qualities.
If there is a down side of the fiddlehead it is the cleaning, a step that is never as pleasant as the eating or the harvest. Fiddleheads are definitely not meant to be eaten raw and there have been incidences of gastro-intestinal upsets from eating them only partially cooked. You will find that, clinging stubbornly to each coil, are papery brown remnants of the membrane that covered the fern heads before they pushed up from their root mounds. These particles must be removed before the fiddleheads are cooked — and therein lies the trouble. Some of them can be rubbed off or blown off (try a hair dryer on the cool setting). The remaining particles, along with any sand that may be clinging to the stems and heads, will gradually rise away when the fiddleheads are washed several time in cool water. (At least four waters are recommended.) Patience is required! Only when the water is finally clear, with no more particles floating to the surface are the fiddleheads sufficiently clean. They then can be drained and stored in the refrigerator for up to a week. They also can be frozen, although that sounds to me like a silly thing that only those who miss the point might do. If you do want to freeze them, however, blanch them in hot water for one minute and freeze in a single layer on a baking sheet and store in freezer bags.
I would say that the very best way to cook fiddleheads is simply to sauté them in butter, add a bit of salt and balsamic vinegar. Or you could sauté them in olive oil with a chopped clove of garlic. If you want to get a bit fancier, Hollandaise sauce is a great accompaniment. (Actually Hollandaise sauce is a great accompaniment to almost everything — but I digress –) Chefs have, of course, concocted all sorts of recipes for fiddleheads, everything from soups, to salads to soufflés. NorCliff Farms sponsors a annual culinary contest for fiddlehead recipes and there are lots of recipes to be found on their website (www.norcliff.com/).
Here is one of my favorite recipes — it makes a nice appetizer plate, or you could just eat it for lunch.
recipe from Elaine
2 tbsp white wine vinegar or lemon juice
6 tbsp olive oil
1/2 tsp Dijon mustard
1 garlic clove, minced
1/2 tsp sweet paprika
1/2 tsp salt
1/8 tsp pepper
1 tsp snipped fresh chives
2 cups fiddleheads, cleaned, cooked and chilled
2 chopped, hardboiled eggs
1) Combine vinegar, oil, mustard, garlic, paprika, salt, pepper and chives.
2) Arrange the fiddleheads on a chilled serving plate.
3) Sprinkle with chopped egg and drizzle the salad with the dressing.
Serves four as appetizer, two for lunch.