I had the opportunity to visit a fellow backyard forager’s property where I was able to collect another regional delicacy – fiddleheads. These can be found for only about a two-week period in the spring, and grow only in the wild. However, if you’re lucky, you can find them in some markets and grocery stores at this time of year in areas where they grow.
There are many types of fiddleheads, but the ones harvested in the north and east of North America are the ostrich ferns. Be sure only to harvest a type of fern that is edible, as there are many which are toxic. The ostrich fiddleheads have to be cooked well or they can have nasty consequences. I know from experience and now am very careful to cook them well. I have found different advice on just how long well-cooked is, and some recommend boiling in two lots of water to get rid of any bitterness. I followed the advice of steaming them for about ten minutes and found the flavour to be only a little stronger than and similar to asparagus with no ill effects.
Once you have identified them for certain, picking them is quite easy, although it involves a lot of stooping and bending. You only need to snap it off – no digging or cutting. It is important to note that each plant produces seven fronds, so you should be careful to pluck no more than three from each plant in order for that plant to survive.
Before the fern appears, they can be identified (which is important so you don’t step on them) by what looks like a burnt piece of wood, about the size and shape of a large artichoke.
The first sign of growth are little copper-coloured nubs which is the skin covering the green fiddleheads. Eventually the green appears and grows out of this black stump and when large enough is ready to be picked. It doesn’t take long to fill a bag with them.
To prepare, you have to remove all of the copper coloured skin. I spread them on a tray, took them outside and tossed them a little and most of it blew away (luckily there was enough breeze blowing to help me in this). The rest I did by hand.
I then soaked them in salted water with lemon juice to get rid of any lingering microbes.
I steamed them for ten minutes. After that they are ready to prepare as you like. The most popular method is to fry them in butter and/or oil, garlic and salt with a little lemon. You can also use any asparagus recipe
I decided to fry some in a pakora batter, which is simply chick pea flour mixed with a little salt and chili powder to taste and enough water to make it the consistency you want. Mine was like a thick pancake batter, but if you make it thinner the coating won’t be so doughy. Just dip the fiddlehead in the batter and fry until it is crisp and golden. Serve it with a chutney or tamarind sauce, or even ketchup.
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