Each spring for a very brief time, we smile when we see the green, curly fern tips known as fiddlehead ferns. Not only are they delicious, but they're a special treat as we can only get them during a short window of time each year.
Fiddlehead ferns are harvested only in certain regional areas and only in the Spring. They're most commonly found in the Northeast and the Great Lakes states where the ferns grow in wet, brackish forests. Each spring when the snow melts, the ferns push their way up through the forest floor, uncurling slowly. It's at this moment just before they uncurl that they are harvested. Tender and with a taste that is reminiscent of a cross between a green bean and asparagus, they can be sautéed or fried.
A tip for the inexperienced: fiddlehead ferns contain a toxin that causes stomach pain in humans when ingested. The toxin is destroyed by the heat generated during cooking, so as a result, the fiddleheads must be cooked thoroughly before eating. Deer are the only mammals known to be able to eat the fiddleheads and not be affected by the toxin.
To prepare, wash the curled-up tips carefully and remove any brown chaff. The chaff is either furry or paper-like. Trim off the browned ends. We like them sautéed with some shallots in butter and lightly sprinkled with salt and pepper, or dipped in beer batter and fried in some olive oil.
We've been finding them at the Ferry Building Farmer's Market, but they can also be ordered online if you can't find them locally.
(Image: Kathryn Hill)