This section is dedicated to
Mrs Céline Legouffe, from Cascapedia St. Jules
a professional fiddlehead harvester.
Fiddleheads are young, edible, fern shoots that are gathered when
they are still curled. They are very similar in shape to the head of a violin,
hence their name.
These vegetables are gathered in the spring when they are
still tightly curled and between 4 and 6 inches high. This period last for
about 15 days between mid-April and early July, depending on the region.
Fiddleheads must be collected just days after they emerge, as the plants
become inedible once they uncoil.
North American Indians appreciated
fiddleheads long before the arrival of Europeans. The plant has also been known
to the Japanese and the aboriginal peoples of Australia and New Zealand.
There are thousands of varieties of ferns, only a few of which produce
edible shoots. Edible varieties include the ostrich fern and the buckhorn, or
cinnamon fern. The fiddleheads of the bracken fern, which are highly prized in
Japan, contain a carcinogenic substance that can be neutralized by roasting the
plants before using them. Brakes rise in single fronds, and the fiddleheads are
more bitter tasting than those of the ostrich fern.
Fiddleheads are sold fresh, frozen, or canned. Fresh
fiddleheads are available only in the spring. They should be bright green, firm
and tightly curled. The stems should be short and the heads between 3/4 and
11/2 inches in diameter. When picking your own fiddleheads, be sure to
correctly identify the different types of ferns, as some inedible varieties
cause food poisoning.
It is very important not to cut the plant to the
ground, as it will be unable to reproduce. In the case of the ostrich fern,
collect three to five fiddleheads per plant, snapping them by hand. Do not use
any metal instruments to cut the ferns.
To rid the fiddleheads of their
scales, rub them between your hands, or place them in a bag, and shake it. Wash
fiddleheads well and drain them before using.
Fiddleheads are a good source of potassium; they also
contain vitamin C, niacin and iron.
Fiddleheads are perishable and should be refrigerated as soon as possible
to prevent them from ripening further, and uncurling in the process. Wrap them
in plastic bag and refrigerate for up to 3 days. Fiddleheads stand up well to
freezing when blanched for 2 to 3 minutes. Plunge into cold water immediately
after blanching and dry them thoroughly before freezing. Blanched fiddleheads
will keep for up to 9 months in the freezer.
There is much discussion about the flavor of these
succulent greens. Some describe it as a cross between asparagus and broccoli;
others say it is a combination of asparagus and mushroom. Fiddleheads have a
unique flavor that reminds you they have just come up from the soil. The
exquisite flavor of fern is at its best when they're served within hours of
picking, either steamed just until tender, about 8 minutes, or cooked,
uncovered, in a large amount of boiling salted water for 5 to 7 minutes or
until stalks are bright green and tender crisp. (Do not overcook. Overcooking
robs them not only of their color, taste and texture but some of their
nutrients as well.)
As a general rule, do not thaw frozen fiddleheads;
simply boil or steam frozen fiddleheads for 6 to 10 minutes or just until
tender crisp. Do not add baking soda to the cooking liquid, as this will affect
their color. Do not be alarmed if the water turns brownish; this normal.
Fresh fiddleheads are best enhanced only by butter, salt, pepper and a
sprinkling of fresh lemon juice or vinegar. Do not overpower their subtle
flavor with heavy sauces or combine them with highly flavored foods or
seasonings. For a salad, simply toss in a light vinaigrette dressing (oil and
vinegar or lemon juice) seasoned with a little minced shallots and a pinch of
Part of this article is an excerpt from The Canadian Living