What a difference two weeks make! The crocuses are already crinkling like wet paper in the 60-degree sun, the daffodils are in bloom, and the first daylily shoots are poking their little prongs out of the moist, fast-warming ground. Though spring arrived almost three weeks ago, it finally feels like it—right in time for Passover, Easter, and all the good food that entails (gefilte fish and matzoh for Passover, Peeps and Cadbury’s eggs for Easter).
But of all the good foods that have come to represent spring for me, nothing trumps the fiddlehead. Much like asparagus, fiddleheads are the early shoots of a much larger plant, in their case the ostrich fern. Their name derives from the tightly curled embryonic fronds that form each of them, making each little plant resemble the head of a fiddle. I’d never had one—ok, I’d never even heard of them—until my wife and her friend Brica introduced me to them about six years ago; I think Brica might have even called them the best thing about spring in the Northeast. I’d never seen one growing in a natural setting until November of 2013, when my wife, Crazy Eights, and I were at the Royal Botanic Gardens in Melbourne. While walking in a wooded area, I looked down and saw, poking their little heds out of the leaves, a small colony of fiddleheads. They were not the ostrich fern and thus probably not edible—I now know this because our edible fiddleheads of the Northeast have smooth stems and these were fuzzy—but they did serve as a reminder that it was in fact spring in Australia.
I didn’t know until reading about it recently in the Kingsolver family’s Animal Vegetable Miracle, but the actual asparagus plant is a bush that grows to roughly the size of a small human in the course of a growing season. The fiddlehead has a similar life cycle, as both they and the edible asparagus shoot grow to their edible forms in the span of a day or two, developing after that into their inedible plant selves. Unlike the asparagus, though, fiddleheads have not, to my knowledge at least, been solved into a farmable crop, which means that if you miss them in their short mid-April harvesting season they’re gone until next year.
In terms of cooking, it’s best to keep it simple and let their deep, woodsy flavor (somewhat akin to both asparagus and artichoke) and delicate, unique texture take center stage. I’d recommend steaming them lightly, then sauteeing them in a light oil with a little bit of garlic and onion. Almost every source I’ve read warns against eating them raw as they might harber a particularly strong bacteria that will do your stomach no favors, but Leda Meredith says in her recently-released Northeast Foraging field guide that she tends to eat a few in moderation while collecting them. If you’re new to fiddleheads, I’d say it’s probably best to play it safe.
Leda tells me that the fiddleheads are now springing at Brooklyn Botanic Garden, and we can probably expect to start seeing them by next week in our markets and coops. Until then, may I make a couple of serving suggestions from my family’s table?