Fiddleheads: A New England Delicacy
by Marcia Passos Duffy
See also: Spring Delicacies; Fiddlehead Trivia
New Englanders are a frugal bunch. Mention “free” and we’ll come - running. Free food falls into this category – as in “free for the picking.” When spring comes to northern New England, the free food abundant in the woods (if you know where to find them) is fiddleheads.
While the best fiddleheads spots are often a guarded secret (akin to Provence, France’s delicacy, truffles) – finding them is a special treat. These sprouts, in the shape of the top of a fiddle, are actually the young coiled leaves of shoot of the ostrich fern. While nearly all ferns have “fiddleheads” those of the ostrich fern are unlike any other – they are delicious!
According to the University of Maine Cooperative Extension, fiddleheads (which appear during April and May) should be harvested as soon as they appear within an inch or two from the ground. Brush out and remove the brown scales. Wash and cook the “heads” in a small amount of lightly salted boiling water for ten minutes or steam for 20 minutes. Serve at once with melted butter. The quicker they are eaten, the more delicate their flavor.
But before you run out to collect these little delicacies, be forewarned that the Center for Disease Control has found a number of outbreaks of food-borne illness associated with fiddleheads (nothing is simple, right?) But the outbreaks occurred when the ferns were eaten raw or lightly cooked (as in sautéed, parboiled or micro-waved). So…cook your fiddlehead thoroughly before eating them…boil them for at least 10 minutes. After than, you can eat them right away, or freeze or pickle them.
If you’re unsure of what a fiddlehead looks like (make sure you know what an edible fiddlehead looks like because some ferns can be poisonous) or have no desire to muck through the woods during mud season to pick them, you can sometimes find them in your produce section if you live in New England or Canada. If you can’t find them, ask your grocer (if he or she knows what they are!) — fiddleheads can be special ordered.
Here’s 2 fiddlehead recipes adapted from my favorite northern New England cookbook, “The Nine Seasons Cookbook” by Pat Haley.
FIDDLEHEAD LEMON SOUP
Boil fiddleheads in water to cover for 5 minutes (don’t worry, it will cook some more later). Drain. Bring the stock to a boil and add salt to taste. Add rice, cover, and simmer for 20 minutes. Beat the eggs with an electric beater until light and frothy. Continue beating and add 2 cups of the hot stock to the eggs but don’t stop beating or the eggs will curdle. When the eggs and broth are well mixed, pour the whole mixture back into the remaining broth. Beat in lemon juice, add the fiddleheads, and heat the entire mixture slowly, but be careful not to boil it. Serve warm.
2 cups fiddleheads
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
½ teaspoon salt
3 large eggs
1 unbaked 9-inch pie shell
½ cup shredded mild cheddar cheese
½ cup shredded Swiss cheese
¾ cup milk
¾ cup half & half
1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
2. Wash the fiddleheads and steam until tender, about 10 minutes. Mix fiddleheads with the lemon juice and salt. Set aside.
3. Separate one of the eggs. Beat the white and brush it on the bottom of the pie shell, then set aside. Combine the remaining yolk and other 2 eggs. Beat slightly.
4. Sprinkle cheddar cheese into the pie shell. Arrange the fiddle heads neatly on top of the cheese.
5. Mix together the eggs, milk and half & half. Pour over the fiddleheads. Sprinkle the Swiss cheese on top. Bake for 35 minutes or until set and golden brown. Test by inserting a knife in the center of the quiche – if it comes out clean it’s done! Remove from the oven and let set for 10 minutes before slicing and serving.
Marcia Passos Duffy, [email protected] is a freelance writer based in New Hampshire and publisher/editor of the free online magazine, The Heart of New England
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