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Fiddlehead Ferns Saute
by Charlie Burke

The fiddlehead fern is a unique
delicacy from northern New England,
particularly prized in Maine 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 mushrooms.

Makes 4 side dishes:

1 pound fiddlehead ferns
2 tablespoons olive oil
Butter (optional)
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.

About the author  An organic farmer and avid cook, writer Charlie Burke is the vice
president of the New Hampshire Farmer’s Market Association ( and helps
run the Sanbornton Farmers' Market. Along with his wife, Joanne, he grows certified
organic herbs, greens and berries at Weather Hill Farm in Sanbornton, NH.

Check out the Fiddlehead sculpture at the Saint John Arts Centre in Saint
John, New Brunswick Canada. It resembles a question
mark or the handle of a
patio umbrella.
The Heart of New England
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