They’re one of the oddest looking and most unusually named vegetables to forage for, but with a very small window of opportunity, fiddleheads—prized through the ages and around the globe—are worth hunting down.
WHAT IN THE WHAT?
Yes, it is the bulbous end—or scroll—of a traditional stringed instrument. But in the flora world, a fiddlehead is the tightly furled frond of a budding fern.
There are thousands of fern species, and most propagate from spores and grow from a central ball with individual fiddleheads clustered tightly together. They breach the earth covered in a coppery, paper-like layer that is shed as they begin to reach skyward, exposing the vibrant green of new growth.
WAY BACK WHEN
Fiddlehead greens are also, and less commonly, know as croziers because they resemble the stylized spiral end of staffs carried by high-ranking Christian clergymen.
As an ancient plant, fossils of ferns have been dated back to a mind-boggling 360 million years and there is evidence of them being a part of the human diet as far back as the Middle Ages.
While exploring the Monteverde Cloud Forest on the peak on the continental divide in Costa Rica, I found many plant species that have retained prehistoric proportions, including ferns that grew like palm trees with fiddleheads the size of soccer balls.
WHERE ART THOU?
Mother’s Day is the benchmark occasion for fiddlehead picking, but as I proved with a trip into the country last week, fiddleheads around Edmonton quite literally hit their tender prime in second week of May. They have a short window of availability, usually two weeks at the most, before the fronds begin to unfurl rendering them inedible.
Fiddleheads are not as prevalent in Alberta as they are on Canada’s east and west coasts, but they can be found and the hunt is half the fun.
Ferns—and therefore young fiddleheads—grow near sources of water such as the shores of a lake or pond, a stream or creek bed, or even in the moist depths of a ravine or culvert. Because Alberta isn’t the ideal climate, looking in areas that face south and receive a decent amount of sun is another lead to uncovering these gems.
If you do strike upon a patch of fiddleheads, it’s important to not over pick them to sustain the plants. No more than half of the fiddleheads can be removed without killing the entire fern.
If you venture out into the wild and your hunt proves fruitless, grocery stores often carry packaged fiddleheads during their short growing season. Superstore currently has commercially harvested fiddleheads for sale from Ponderosa Mushrooms & Specialty Foods in Port Coquitlam, BC.
FRIEND OR FOE
As with most things in nature, not all fiddleheads are friendly. The ostrich fern is the most popular in the kitchen, although most fiddleheads are harmless, if slightly less tasty. Of all varieties, the bracken fern contains a carcinogen that’s been associated with stomach and oesophageal cancers and the Royal Horticultural Society recommends it be avoided by humans and livestock.
Despite potential toxins, fiddleheads must always be carefully prepared and cooked thoroughly. Because they are foraged for in the wild, harmful microbes can be present, along with bugs, so soaking them a couple times before giving them a good rinse is recommended. This also helps remove what is left of their protective papery coating so only the tender green remains. Health Canada recommends a minimum cook time of 15 minutes if they’re being boiled, and 10 to 12 minutes if they’re steamed—an approach preferred by many professional chefs.
As with other green vegetables, fiddleheads are extremely nutritious and delicious. Especially after boiling for a couple minutes in salted water, they have a slight sweetness to them and can be most closely compared to asparagus or spinach.
This vegetable is rich in antioxidants and a very good source of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. They are also rich in minerals, such as potassium, manganese and zinc, and vitamins including vitamin A, vitamin C and some from the B complex group, as well as carotenes.
Aside from fiddleheads doing a body good, a hike out in the wild is great for the spirit.
Preparing fiddleheads is a fairly straightforward endeavour. Trim the fiddlehead stems to no more than three cm from the coil and make sure to remove as much of the brown husk as possible. Again, soaking them well, or even a boiling salt bath will get rid of any bitterness in the flavour as well as debris from the wild.
Fiddleheads are consumed all over the world, from France to the Himalayas, and prepared in many different ways. In India, fiddleheads are pickled while the Japanese like to roast them. In North America, fiddleheads are most often served as a side dish like green beans or brussel sprouts.
Once they’ve been thoroughly cooked, but not overcooked rendering them mushy, fiddleheads can be used in a number of creative ways; cook them into an omelette, they’re an ideal ingredient for a soup, toss them into a hearty salad, or even with pasta in the same way asparagus would be used. Or, simply turned with some butter and pepper; these fantastic foraged vegetables are a treat on their own.
And if you’re lucky enough to strike upon a mother lode, fiddleheads are easily blanched and frozen to be enjoyed all season long.