I’ve seen the first roadside sign of the season: Clean Fiddleheads, $2.75/pound. I have to commend the fiddleheaders who go out early each spring to forage for these little ostrich fern delicacies and then go home and clean off the brown, papery skin covering each one. It is a labor-intensive activity.
Fiddleheads actually are the curled young fronds of a fern. In the early spring, new growth of a fern emerges as curled leaves. Fiddleheads grow in New England and along the east coast of Canada as well as in Quebec and Ontario. In Maine, fresh fiddleheads are usually available from late April to mid-May.
There are many varieties of ferns around us, but the ostrich and cinnamon fern are the only two that are edible and safe to eat. Other varieties of ferns look similar but may be poisonous.
When gathering fiddleheads, you only want the first one to two inches of the stem that is attached to the coil. Anything else should be broken off and thrown away. Never harvest all of the fiddleheads from a patch or it could destroy the whole fern. It is best to take just two or three coils from each patch.
Fiddleheads should be cooked thoroughly before eating. Raw fiddleheads can carry food-borne illness and may cause stomach upset if you eat too many of them.
If you locate and pick some of these bright green specimens for your own use, be sure to rinse them in several changes of water to remove any dirt. To store, wrap lightly in plastic wrap and keep them in the refrigerator until you are ready to cook them. Use fiddleheads as soon as possible after harvesting for the best taste and texture.
Nutritionally speaking, fiddleheads contain about 22 calories, 3 grams of carbohydrates, 2.8 grams of protein and 0.2 grams of fat per half cup serving. They owe their beta-carotene content to their deep green color. Fiddleheads also provide a good amount of vitamin C, niacin and potassium.
The taste of fiddleheads is unique. It has been described as grassy and spring-like with a hint of nuttiness, or as a cross between asparagus and young spinach. Some say it has a flavor similar to an artichoke, maybe with a whiff of mushroom. My taste buds just don’t distinguish that definitively. They just taste like a green to me. And I like greens.
Fiddleheads should be washed, added to a small amount of lightly salted water, cooked for about 10 minutes and then served with a bit of melted butter or vinegar. Some people like them cooked until soft and spread on toast, like asparagus. Cooked, chilled fiddleheads can be added to a fresh garden salad or served with a vinegar-based dressing.
Not being a native of Maine, I didn’t grow up eating fiddleheads. My introduction to them was when my husband brought me home a hat full — that’s all he had to pick them in — and I had no idea what they were. I cooked them up in a cream of fiddlehead soup that was decadent. Another way to serve fiddleheads is in a quiche. Serve along with a tossed salad for a quick evening meal.
Makes 8 servings
1 cup 1 percent milk
1 cup fiddleheads, cooked and chopped
2 tablespoons chopped leeks or ¼-cup chopped onion1 tablespoon chopped fresh parsley or 1 teaspoon dried parsley1 cup sharp Cheddar cheese, shredded½ teaspoon salt, or to taste
1 partially baked pie crust, 9 or 10 inches
8 whole cooked fiddleheads, for garnish
Preheat oven to 350. Beat the eggs with the milk until blended. Fold in the chopped fiddleheads, leeks, parsley and half of the grated cheese. Season with salt to taste. Turn into the partially baked shell and sprinkle on the remaining cheese. Decorate the edge with whole fiddleheads. Bake 40 minutes or until set. Let rest 10 minutes before serving.
Nutrition information per serving
200 calories, 12 gms fat, 11 gms carbs, 9 gms protein, 2.5 gms dietary fiber, 250 mgs sodium
For a lower-fat version use nonfat milk, lowfat cheddar cheese and egg substitutes.
Georgia Clark-Albert is a registered dietitian who lives in Athens, Maine. Read more of her columns and post questions at bangordailynews.com or email her at GeorgiaMaineMSRDCDE@gmail.com.