NEW YORK — In the evocative food world, fiddleheads are spring's first shooting stars - for an all-too-brief period they appear only to rise, then fade for another year.
Fiddlehead ferns offer the taste of the woods, a sweet earthiness, someplace near a brook, under the trees where they gently unfurl.
The delicate, green curlicues are a reminder of the days when the country's first settlers knew their diet of dried meats and root vegetables was finally over for the season.
The tight new growth of the ostrich fern (Matteuccia) is edible for only a few weeks before the plants unfold and become graceful but unappetizing greenery.
In mid-April, Ozzie Henchel, (The Fiddlehead King), scours Barton, Vt., 20 miles south of the Canadian border, for the first young ferns. The area is wild and non-industrialized and produces robust fiddleheads. Mr. Henchel delivers them to the Union Square Green Market in Manhattan and says that, long before restaurant chefs began the wild food fad about 10 years ago, he and his neighbors would spend an afternoon foraging for fiddleheads and fill their freezers to have greens in the winter.
You may not be so fortunate as to have woods nearby where you can harvest them, but, fortunately they are increasingly available in supermarkets. When shopping for fiddleheads, choose those that are firm, tightly curled, and dark green in color.
They can be prepared simply by steaming, then tossed with butter, salt, and a bit of lemon juice. A more interesting way to prepare them, while still maintaining their fresh, woodsy flavor is to roast them briefly in a hot oven with salmon filets.
To clean fiddleheads, trim about 1 inch off the stem end. Rub off the dry brown fuzz by hand, or with a damp cloth. Let them soak in a bowl of cold water, changing the water several times to remove any grit or casing particles. Drain and blot them with paper towels.