Fiddlehead Ferns Saute
by Charlie Burke
The fiddlehead fern is a unique delicacy from northern New England, particularly prized in Maine,
Vermont and New Hampshire.
That they are the first green vegetable in the early spring, are around for only a few weeks, and are gathered
by foragers adds to their mystique.
When we had our cottage at Sebago Lake, they would arrive at local stores in burlap bags carried by some
memorable local characters. If someone, always “from away,” were to ask where he found them, the usual
response was a silent stare. If the forager responded at all, it would usually be: “in the woods.” Natives
know these locations are carefully guarded secrets and never bother to ask the question.
Our son, Michael, once approached a group fishing on the ice in front of our cottage and asked what they
were fishing for and what bait they were using. He got two answers: “fish” and “bait”! For those of us
fortunate to live in the three best states in New England, fiddleheads connect us with the past when folks
lived closer to the land.
So named because they resemble the carved wood on a violin, fiddleheads are the unfurled shoots of the
ostrich fern. Once they open and start to grow, they become inedible; the best are tightly wrapped and dark
green. They have a delicious intense flavor which reminds me of the scent of woodland moss. Most describe
it as resembling asparagus, but I think this is a reach. Cooked to crunchy tenderness, they are a flavorful and
versatile treat. Most recipes call for blanching prior to final preparation, but I eliminate this step, preferring
to sauté them directly.
Traditionally, fiddleheads are served with only butter or oil and seasoning, and I recommend you serve
them this way the first time you try them or if you are going to add them to a salad, soup or stew. Cooked
with garlic and/or bacon they develop a more complex flavor; we like them both ways and sometimes sauté
them with mushrooms.
Their appearance coincides with that of wild morels, and I’ve read they are fabulous together.
Unfortunately, morels are rarely in the market, so we’ve had to be content with using more common
Makes 4 side dishes:
1 pound fiddlehead ferns
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 cloves finely chopped garlic (optional)
¼ cup pancetta or bacon, cut into ¼ inch cubes (optional)
Kosher or sea salt and ground black pepper
Trim the dark ends from the stems and wash the fiddleheads in a coarse strainer using a strong stream of
water. Place them in a large bowl of water and swirl them around, rubbing off the thin flakes of chaff on the
ferns. Drain and dry in a kitchen towel, rubbing off any remaining chaff.
Heat oil in a sauté pan over medium -- high heat. Add the bacon or pancetta, if using, and cook, stirring
until lightly browned. Add ferns and garlic and cook, covered, for 3-4 minutes. Uncover and cook for an
additional 3-4 minutes or until they are tender but still are slightly crunchy. Add salt and pepper to taste
and swirl in some butter if you wish. Serve immediately. If you make extra, they make an interesting
addition to a mixed salad or soups and stews. Because they are fully cooked, add them at the last minute to
hot dishes. Any way you serve them, you will be enjoying a true New England treasure.
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