Sometimes when you hear of a food ingredient you haven’t cooked with or eaten before, it lodges itself in your mind and takes hold. The seed germinates and turns to fascination, and then before you know it, it grows into an infatuation. Before long, it turns into an obsession.
I remember the first time I read about roast goose being served traditionally at Christmas in England. It was only a couple of years after we moved to Oregon. I became fascinated by the idea of serving goose for Christmas instead of ham or turkey at our holiday gathering of family and close friends.
Before long, I had found a source for frozen goose, tracked down a recipe (which took two days to prepare), and on Christmas that year a beautifully roasted goose was on the table. There were compliments from all around, but I was silent. Everyone loved it. I hated it. Charles even made me save the goose fat for use later in other recipes, filling a little Tupperware tub and stashing it away in the freezer as if it were liquid gold.
A couple of weeks ago, I had a similar food experience. At a class on tidal pool edibles, our instructor mentioned that one of the things he did in the early spring was gather fiddlehead ferns to sauté, and he went on and on about their flavor. The little fiddlehead spore lodged itself in my mind.
After a week, I was cruising the Internet and calling the local organic food store to find a source for fiddleheads. But I was unsuccessful.
Last weekend I finally decided to try City Market, a specialty market in Portland comprised of five separate businesses under one roof: Chop Butchery and Charcuterie, Pastaworks wine, pasta and cheeses, Newman’s Fish Company, Raw Raw Raw Produce and Quinn in the City Flowers. I tentatively posed the question: “Do you have any fiddlehead ferns?” “Yes, we just got some in this morning” was the reply. I asked Chris to put a pound aside and put my name on it, telling him I’d drive up from Salem the next morning to pick it up. “Don’t you want to know how much it is?” Oh, yeah, I thought — this could be like Oregon black truffles (which are going for $189 a pound). It turned out they were only $19.99 a pound, not nearly as pricey, but considering that someone had to forage for these fronds in the wild, I figured it was a good deal.
When Charles heard of my plans, he posted a note on our Facebook page that fiddleheads were on the dinner menu. It wasn’t long until our friends responded with eagerness to learn about our culinary results.
Well, thankfully, this did not turn out like the goose experience. Charles and I loved them, and surprisingly so did my mother (who is not what I would consider an adventuresome eater).
I have heard and read of people describing them as nutty, somewhat like asparagus. So my plan was to mirror that flavor with some toasted pine nuts, and to use simple seasonings and a cooking method that would allow us to actually taste the ferns.
From my research on the Internet, I discovered that fiddleheads can upset your stomach if eaten raw, and so most of the online sources I found advised washing and blanching them before doing anything else with them.
When I dumped them out of the grocery bag, I hesitated for a moment; the sight brought back a memory from my childhood in Thailand when other kids taunted me with millipedes. Millepedes look like huge segmented worms with millions of little legs. When you touch them, they curl up. These fiddleheads looked kind of like those millipedes from my memory. “OK, enough of that,” I thought to myself, and proceeded to chop off the coarse stems and then rinse them several times in cold water to clean them. Before long they were cooked to crunchy perfection and we were nibbling on them at the dinner table along with some seafood chowder that Charles had made.
They were nutty, had a crunchy texture, and a slightly green taste not unlike asparagus, but we also found that they had a little tartness to them that hits you at the end after you’ve chewed on them. I told Charles they reminded me of pickled asparagus spears, but crunchier.
Fiddleheads may not be for everyone, but we loved them so much that I’m sure we’ll be enjoying this spring treat again soon.
Fiddlehead Ferns Sautéed in Olive Oil and Champagne Vinegar
- 1 pound (455 g.) fiddlehead ferns, washed, coarse stems removed and blanched for 2 to 3 minutes in boiling water until they float to the top, then toss them into an ice-water bath to stop them from cooking and quickly cool them and drain
- 4 tablespoons (60 ml.) olive oil
- 6 cloves garlic, chopped
- Champagne vinegar (just a splash)
- ¼ cup (60 ml.) toasted pine nuts
- 1 cup (240 ml.) grape tomatoes sliced in half
- Heat oil over a high flame in a wok or sauté pan.
- Add chopped garlic and cook until golden brown.
- Toss in the fiddlehead ferns and stir, cooking for 2-3 minutes and then toss in the tomatoes and add a splash of Champagne vinegar, salt and pepper to taste. Stir for another minute, remove from heat and serve, sprinkling the toasted pine nuts over the top.