They look great on the plate and their taste, though distinctly wild, is still approachable—a cross between asparagus and artichoke, some say. Me: I say their taste is totally unique, although I get that butteriness as well as the high green note common in so many wild edible plants.
Fiddleheads are the new growth of ferns, named for their violin scroll shape. High-end restaurants charge handsomely for these greens, yet you can find them coast to coast without too much difficulty, sometimes even in urban parks.
Here in the Puget Sound lowlands we get our first fiddleheads in early spring around the same time the salmonberry blossoms. The season continues into late spring in the mountains, and, as I discovered last year, you can get a second crop in summer where trail crews have wielded their machetes.
The most popular fiddlehead in the Pacific Northwest is the lady fern (Athyrium filix-femina). Elsewhere in North America, particularly in New England, the ostrich fern (Matteuccia struthiopteris) is considered tops and makes up the bulk of the commercial trade. There are whisperings of ostrich ferns in northeast Washington but I have yet to verify the rumors.
Look for fiddleheads in damp woodlands, swamps, and meadow margins. You want to get them while still young and tightly coiled; the unfurled fern fronds (say that 10 times, quick) are actually toxic. Also, you should know what you’re looking for. While there are no fiddleheads known to be deadly poisonous, some are considered mildly toxic or at least unpalatable. A good way to scout a fiddlehead patch is to find the leafed-out ferns in summer when they’re easier to identify and then return to the same spot in the spring. Last year I realized one of my admiral bolete patches was loaded with lady ferns, a feature I’d missed in the past probably because I was so focused on the mushrooms, so this year I plan to harvest mucho fiddleheads to freeze and pickle.
They emerge dressed for the unpredictable weather sporting a variety of fur cloaks or papery sheaths. Rub off the coat as best you can before cooking. With some species, such as the lady fern, it’s nearly impossible to completely remove the chaff. Cut the stem close to the coil, which is also called a crosier.
Fiddlehead Pasta with Lemon Butter Sauce
1 lb pasta
3 cups fiddleheads, cleaned
4 tbsp butter
2-3 garlic cloves, minced
2-3 tbsp lemon juice
1 tsp lemon zest
1 cup parmesan cheese, grated
salt and pepper, to taste
1. Blanche the fiddleheads for a minute or two in pot of boiling water. Remove with slotted spoon and add pasta to same water.
2. Saute garlic in butter until not quite golden. Add lemon juice and cook another minute. Add fiddleheads and coat thoroughly. Toss with pasta, lemon zest, and cheese. Season at table. Serves 3-4.
Caveat Emptor: Remember, fiddleheads are wild. Don’t expect them to behave like docile domesticated greens. My lunch of Fusilli with Fiddleheads was delicious, but one or two of the ‘heads was noticeably bitter, probably because I picked it too late. Always try to find the tightest coils closest to the ground, within a couple inches if possible.