Learn How to Identify and Prepare Fiddleheads

Each spring, almost as a rite of spring, I harvest fiddleheads and ramps (also called wild leeks) for use in my kitchen. Now is the time to harvest them, at least where I live. Today I will focus on fiddleheads, as they soon will be gone by. I will post about ramps in the near future.

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Edible fiddleheads are ready for harvesting. Please note that several  kinds of  ferns produce “fiddleheads” but only one variety is good for cooking and eating, the ostrich fern (Matteucia struthiopteris). It is important to know the ostrich fern, as others will not be tasty.

Fiddleheads grow in shady, moist areas in the woods or near the woods

The ostrich fern is a big, tall fern that is sometimes called the shuttlecock fern because the arrangement of the fronds is like the feathers of a badminton birdy or shuttlecock. Some other ferns are similar, but the ostrich fern has a unique feature: a ridge up the inside of each glossy frond, much like the ridge on a stalk of celery. And you may notice the brown fertile fronds (from last year) that appear in the center of this funnel-shaped arrangement.

This groove helps identify the ostirch fern.

Look at the stem of the emerging fiddlehead. There are 2 other common ferns, the cinnamon fern and the interrupted fern, that have fiddleheads but neither is tasty. They are bitter and unpleasant, though not lethal if eaten. Both have lots of fuzz on their fiddleheads and on the stems that support them.

Many people boil fiddleheads before using them, but I do not. They do this to remove “toxins”, but my research and personal experience finds that doing so is not necessary. According to foraging expert Sam Thayer in his book, The Forager’s Harvest: A Guide to Identifying, Harvesting and Preparing Edible Wild Plants, there is no toxin in the ostrich fern. He eats them raw and cooked. Click here to learn more about Sam Thayer's wonderful books. 

As with any wild harvested foodstuff, I believe it is good to try fiddleheads in small quantities. One person reported to me that she got a tummy-ache from eating fiddleheads unless she boiled them first. But that turns them into mush, and I personally would not want to eat them.

Some people only eat the tightly curled tops of the fiddlehead, but you can – and should – eat the stems, too. Otherwise you are wasting good food. I like to pick them when the stems are 8 to 12 inches tall, and I eat the whole thing. And do not pick all the fronds or stems from any given plant. I just pick one or two stems out of the half dozen growing.

Fiddleheads are easily prepared with nuts and garlic - or just plain.

Here is how I prepare them. I cut the stems into bite-sized pieces and sauté them alng with the fiddleheads in a cast iron frying pan with olive oil, garlic and nuts. Slivered almonds are great, but recently I made a batch using raw walnuts, which were fabulous! I cook them at medium heat until the nuts and garlic brown – 3 minutes, perhaps.

So go harvest some fiddleheads and prepare a spring treat!

 Now is the time to get your garden ready for summer. Click here to learn what you should do.

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