The Wild and Whorlly Fiddlehead

I fell in love with the evocative fiddlehead when I moved back East after 17 years on the West Coast. I think you must experience the long gray days of winter to appreciate the fiddlehead as a sentimental and poetic harbinger of spring.

I loved the fiddlehead's look - tightly coiled and newly formed, so like its namesake, the scrolled end of a violin - a verdant contrast to the dark, wet aura of winter.

The fiddleheads carried a prophetic sense of raw life about to form, and I imagined the bold green fern shoots trapped by oblique cuts of light on a chilly spring morning.

Seduced by their symbolism, I purchased a pound of these wild seasonal greens. As I quickly researched how to prepare my exotic find, I came to appreciate their elusiveness. They were, indeed, the perfect transitional gastronomic ritual.

The fiddlehead remains uncultivated, and is foraged and picked in the wild by the sturdiest of souls. Thousands of pounds of fiddleheads in large green trash bags are hauled from the woods and streams by their foragers - a seasonal event with no formal planting, no organized harvest.

Brief season rings in spring

Fiddleheads are a growth stage, not a species - the sprouted unfurled tip (known by their French name of crosier) of young ferns, primarily the ostrich fern. Like wild mushroom collecting, fiddlehead picking is best left to knowledgeable foragers.

They are found in rich woods and along riverbanks and streams in the Northeast at the beginning of May and in mid-April in the Northwest. They also grow in the Great Lakes states as well as Canada, Europe, and Asia.

Fiddlehead season is a few weeks, the picking stage brief. As tender and delicate as fiddleheads are one moment, they can become tough and fibrous in a matter of hours. Snapped when just 2 to 5 inches in length, these delectable discs can "blow" or "bolt" (into full feathered fern extensions) in just one day if it gets hot.

Lyn Thurston of Blue Sky Produce in Gorham, Maine, distributor of these transitory shoots, explains that from the actual first news that "there's fiddleheads," often a mere 24 hours pass before they're picked, packed, shipped, and sold. And they must be prepared, if not eaten, just as expeditiously. Once prepared, however, they will keep for up to 10 days and for much longer when frozen.

Butch Wells Jr. of W. S. Wells & Son in Wilton, Maine, is co-owner of the Belle of Maine label of canned and freeze-dried local items and a fourth-generation fiddlehead processor. He says last year they processed 68,000 pounds of fiddleheads - which was a bit above average season for them; 40 tons would be a good year.

Nothing about the fiddlehead is easy. But if, like me, you are a lover of vegetables and greens, you will appreciate the ritualistic effort.

The first step is to cut the fibrous stems. Then the fronds must be soaked in a bowl of cold water to remove the layer of fuzz or light brown "stuff" - as chef and author Jasper White so succinctly refers to the paper-thin membrane or flaky casings. Repeated soaking and rinsing works well.

Aficionados who savor the freshness and unique flavor - which has been likened to asparagus, artichokes, and morels - cook the fiddleheads immediately. Barely sauted in butter with lemon juice or a touch of vinegar, seasoned merely with salt and pepper, or steamed or boiled until tender (12 to 15 minutes) and served with a traditional hollandaise sauce are favored methods.

If you're not cooking the greens immediately, however, or would like to freeze them, the second step after cleaning is to blanch them in boiling, salted water. They should be blanched for about one minute, then rinsed in very cold water. Some cooks suggest double blanching.

The clean, blanched fiddleheads will keep for up to a week in the refrigerator, or are ready to freeze. (Frozen fiddleheads can last up to a year and are fine for soups and other dishes using a more well-cooked green.)

Fiddlehead festival

With its deep green color and subtle, delicate flavor, the fiddlehead lends itself to many dishes. I have found that you can substitute them in salads, soups, quiches, and other recipes calling for asparagus, if you want to experiment.

I also discovered some esoteric recipes like fiddlehead ice cream. While searching for more recipes, I ended up speaking to Helen Gibbs, of Monroe, Maine, whose husband, Derol, known as the Fiddlehead King of Monroe County, is a now-retired forager.

Derol and Helen, along with the Monroe Sportsmen's Club, used to produce the Maine State Fiddlehead Festival in Unity, where you could buy bags of the last of the season's fresh greens and sample official recipes.

Among infamous seasonal selections produced for the event were Helen Gibbs's Fiddlehead Doughnuts, Seekins's Fiddlehead Balls, Julianna's Fiddlehead Ravioli, and the curiously named Impossible Fiddlehead Pie - all highlights of this unfortunately bygone celebration.

Although the Gibbses' picking days are over, their eating days are not. A few weeks ago, Helen predicted that the fiddleheads would be late this year, because of the long and harsh winter.

She looks forward to this year's crop, and muses about whether her sons might do some foraging this year. "But, you know ... I just found some in the freezer, marked '94," Helen says in her lovely laid-back, down-home Maine drawl, "and they were still delicious ... really tasted good."

This year, I plan to freeze a bag and suggest you do the same. In the meantime, when you find the fresh fiddleheads in your produce department, you'll know that spring is really here.

***RECIPES***

Fiddlehead Frittata

This frittata is my 'ode to spring.' It can be prepared year-round substituting fresh asparagus, but nothing tastes or looks as lovely as when it is made and garnished with fresh fiddleheads. Serve hot, at room temperature, or cold; for brunch, lunch, or a light supper. It goes well with a salad and good bread.

2 cups cooked, cut-up fresh fiddleheads (can be prepared in advance)

6 to 8 whole fiddleheads, cooked

2 cups cooked, cut-up new potatoes (can be prepared in advance)

1/2 cup chopped onion

2 to 3 tablespoons butter

3 tablespoons olive oil

2 cups cut-up crimini (brown) mushrooms

Salt and pepper to taste

2 tablespoons fresh thyme

3/4 cup chevre (goat cheese)

1/4 cup plus 3 tablespoons grated or shredded Parmesan

7 eggs, well beaten

Soak fiddleheads in cold water, then blanch for 1 to 3 minutes in salted boiling water. Repeat procedure. Cut into bite-size pieces, reserving 6 to 8 whole fiddleheads for top of frittata. Boil or steam until tender (about 20 minutes), then run under cold water.

Meanwhile, boil, cool, and cut up the new potatoes into bite-size pieces. Set aside.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.

In a 10-inch cast-iron frying pan, saut chopped onion in 1 tablespoon butter mixed with 1 tablespoon olive oil over medium heat, until translucent. Add mushrooms and more butter and olive oil as needed. Salt and pepper to taste. As mushrooms cook down, add potatoes and fiddleheads. Mix well and add fresh thyme. Add more salt and pepper as needed.

Over low heat, add goat cheese and most of the Parmesan, reserving 3 tablespoons of Parmesan for top. Mix thoroughly, and slowly add beaten eggs. Stir until well melded and the egg mixture runs throughout the vegetable mix. Remove from heat. Pat top with wooden spoon until flat. Place 6 to 8 whole fiddleheads on top and push into mixture. Sprinkle with remaining Parmesan.

Position cast-iron pan in top third of oven. Bake for 20 minutes or until egg has set, then place under broiler for 3 to 5 minutes to brown top. Let cool, then run knife around edges and lift with two spatulas onto round plate.

Serves 6.

Fiddlehead Melt

One of the seasonal treats that showed up in many cookbooks and writings of stalkers of the wild is a very simple one.

8 slices bacon

2 English muffins, split

3 cups cooked fiddleheads

1/2 cup shredded or grated Cheddar cheese

Cook the bacon over medium heat until crisp; then drain. Toast and butter English muffin halves, then arrange fiddleheads on them. Top with bacon and sprinkle with cheese. Brown until cheese melts.

Serves 2.

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