Friday, June 5, 2009

Fiddlehead fern

Fiddlehead refers not to a specific plant but to the general aspect of young, green, unfurled fronds of ferns looking like the curled head of a fiddle, thus circinate vernation.

Also known as the shuttlecock fern, Matteuccia struthiopteris, the Ostrich fern is the most edible species of the fern family. It can grow up to six feet tall and likes to live in places that offer constantly moist soil, such as flood plains. It has a papery sheath around the frond which needs to be peeled before cooking, and it has no fibrous hairs like some other ferns.

Chef Ted makes a soup of fiddleheads puréed with shallots, (chicken) stock, and an herb such as tarragon. At our spring foraging supper he served it with a small Maine crab cake, and garnished it with a few Canadian white violet flowers.

The easiest way for me to find the correct fern is at winter's end or in early spring. I look for the dried, leftover frond that looks like a feather, and I sometimes mark the spot. The Ostrich fern can grow beside other inedible ferns, but the smooth fiddlehead with paper sheath is tell tale. Do not confuse it with the frequently found dried frond of the Sensitive Fern, Onoclea sensibilis, that has little beads running it's length.

There are some who say do not pick a crown clean, rather only 2-3 fiddles from a crown. (The crown is the largish mass protruding from the ground from which the fiddle heads sprout and the underside from which the roots are attached.) They say if you do, the plant will die and/or there will be less fiddle heads the following year. Some old timers say fiddleheads are not as big as they used to be because of over picking.

Consider fiddleheads an endangered delicacy and only pick a few. Be sure to cook them throughly, as they are not ingested well when undercooked, and may even be toxic to some when raw.