Fiddleheads are the edible tender shoots of the ostrich fern, found throughout the Northeast U.S. but especially common in Maine. They fall into the same category as fresh peas, morels, squash blossoms, and other seasonal delicacies – they’re here for only a few fleeting weeks, then they’re gone for another year. In Massachusetts, fiddleheads are around mostly during the month of May, sometimes in late April depending on the weather.
In its mature state, the ostrich fern grows several feet tall and is easily identified by its tall, broad fronds and lacy leaves. They grow in partially shaded areas along the banks of streams, brooks, and other moist environments. In their immature state, fiddleheads poke out of the ground looking like a tight coil waiting be unfurled. They resemble canes that are anywhere from several inches to 2 feet tall with a tight coil at the top. That’s where the name ‘fiddlehead’ comes from – it resembles the headstock of a violin. Generally it’s only the top few inches of the plant that gets harvested. They taste mildly of asparagus.
If you’re lucky enough to live in an area where fiddleheads grow and you can confidently identify them, go ahead and pick them – you’ll save yourself a bundle. On a recent visit to the store I saw them selling for $20 a pound. A good guide to fiddlehead identification can be found here.
Be sure to clean off the papery brown flakes covering the frond before cooking them. Simply rinse under cold water and wipe away the flakes with your fingers. Due to chemicals produced by the plant, fiddleheads that are raw or undercooked can create gastric distress, so they need to be cooked all the way through. My method is a very simple preparation: Boil for 3 or 4 minutes, then sauté in butter with garlic and a touch of salt until they are softened and begin to brown. They need nothing more than that.
The fiddleheads in this picture I took came from Russo’s in Watertown, MA – my favorite place to go shopping.
A picture of what fiddleheads look like in their natural state can be found here.
Now go get yourself some fiddleheads and start cooking!
- 1 pound fiddleheads, rinsed
- 4 cloves garlic, finely chopped
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- salt to taste
- Bring a medium pot of water to a boil. Add the fiddleheads and boil for 4 minutes. Drain.
- Heat the olive oil in a pan over medium high heat. Add the garlic and cook until fragrant, about 30 seconds.
- Add the fiddleheads and sauté with the garlic until the fiddleheads begin to brown slightly, about 3-5 minutes.
- Season with salt and serve.