Fiddlehead Ferns – A Fun, but Short-lasting and Potentially Dangerous Novelty

A month and a half or so ago, fiddlehead ferns were in season. They’re awesome. I have to be honest though, their “awesomeness” is more in their novelty than their flavor. They’re OUTRAGEOUSLY expensive, as well as a bit hard to find. I read another blog claiming that they were available for $6/lb in Boston this past season – but I don’t believe it. I paid $20/lb for them (albeit at Bi-Rite – a store that I love, but is admittedly super expensive).

Regardless, however, the season is over so it doesn’t much matter their cost, does it? The season is two – maaaaaybe three – weeks long in the middle of May; they’re the unfurled fronds of the Ostrich Fern, which – once furled – is supposedly a supercarcinogen to the point of being almost poisonous. There’s another edible fern, as well, called the Bracken Fern that’s supposedly a lot more dangerous. You get mixed information depending on what you read. I’m not a botanist, so I don’t know the whole truth behind the “poisonous” Ostrich Fern, but I do know two things.

1. There was a series of accounts of wacky food poisoning in New York and Quebec because of “unidentified toxins” in the plant – these plants, though, are late harvest.

2. I have eaten them more than once and had no problem, and so have a grip of friends.

As far as I can tell, most of the toxins come out as they start to open. So get them while their hot, and forget the ones that are three weeks into the season. Unless you like blowing chunks and getting stomach cancer – in which case, I say go hunt some ferns down now, in July, and feast near strong and proper plumbing.

And now, back to the important part – the eating part. Like I said, I think their fame is for their novelty and less for their actual flavor. Raw (and even a little cooked) they’re bitter, funky and stringy. I hear people compare them to asparagus, and that’s a lie. Obviously I wouldn’t eat raw asparagus because that’s gross, but cooked it’s meaty, earthy and perfect. Ferns, when cooked, are still a little stringy, a little bitter but have a nice juicy crunchy bite – a little like biting into a crispy succulent. There is some spice, a little earthiness, but you end up getting most of your desired flavor from what you cook it in; and to do so, follow these quick and simple instructions and you’ll be on your way to a delicious fiddlehead fern salad:

    1. Trim off any brown part at the end and rinse them off in a colander.

    2. Bring a large pot of salted water to a rolling boil and blanch the ferns for 2 or so minutes (til bright green) then shock ’em in an ice bath.

    3. In a deep saute pan, heat up equal parts butter, duck fat and bacon fat. It’s ready when it’s bubbly, melted and starting to brown (but not yet brown).

    4. Add the cleaned ferns (careful, you don’t wanna get burned by greasy fat popping on you!) to the fat, add a super tiny pinch of salt (the bacon fat is gonna salt it up) a couple twists of fresh ground pepper, a clove or two of finely minced garlic, and a hefty pinch of heat – meaning cayenne, red pepper flakes, ground chili, or (my choice) korean red chili flakes and the juice of half a lemon. The heat from the cayenne/pepper flakes/chili whatever and the acid in the lemon will act to cut through the thickness of all the fats (which add some complexity to the bitterness) and balance out the bitterness even more.

    5. Fry it like this for a hot minute, till just a little browned (but don’t let the butter and fats burn!), then drain it like you would bacon – in paper towels or a fine colander. (save the left over renderings for another dish)

    6. Toss the still warm ferns with raw squash blossoms. While they’re cooling, fry up a couple of pieces of bacon, nice and crispy and dice ’em into bite sized bits; separately whisk together equal parts champagne vinegar and extra virgin olive oil with a little salt and pepper. While the bacon is still warm, toss it all together (ferns, blossoms and bacon) with some mixed greens, goat cheese with a teeny tiny bit of the vinaigrette (really light). Some delish additions could be some shaved pickled onions or diced calabrian chilis.

    7. Now eat it!

And just for fun, a fiddlehead wine recipe! (I can’t wait til next season to give it a shot!)