I was first introduced to fiddlehead ferns some 10 years ago in New York City. I wish I could remember exactly where I was when I first tried them, but what I do remember was that once I tasted the delicacy I knew I would forever crave them.
Fiddlehead ferns are a great reason to look forward to spring, or early summer if you are in the mountains, because they pop up out here later. The earthy green vegetable is literally the early spout of a fern plant, usually foraged for in the wild. A small stem comes out of the ground, curled around the soft leaves that would turn into a mature fern plant if not plucked while still young.
While I have never been lucky enough to find them myself (though I have heard you can if you know where to look around Jackson Hole), when you see them popping up on restaurant menus you know it is time to scout for them. You can sometimes buy them in specialty markets, at farmers markets or order them online.
A few weeks ago, I found a batch of them at the Whole Foods in Park City. I have eaten them a bunch out times at restaurants, but I think have only cooked them a couple of times, so I grabbed a batch ready to try again.
The first step to cooking fiddlehead ferns is cleaning them very, very well. Because of the shape, the growth can hide dirt and an outer brown shell in the nooks and crannies of the fern.
I suggest soaking the fiddleheads in a bowl of cold water, rinsing and repeating several times. Then, I individually go through each one and make sure any brown skin is trimmed and removed.
Then, I precook the fiddleheads by parboiling them for three to four minutes. Strain and shock them with cold water, then set aside until you are almost ready to serve them.
Fiddlehead ferns are so good that it is almost a waste not simply to eat them alone as a side dish. Sautéed with a little bit of butter, salt and pepper and finished with a squeeze of lemon, it is a hard dish to beat. Garlic can make them better too.
But this night, I decided to make a warm salad with them. I prepared a bowl of mache lettuce topped with a little bit of feta cheese and set it aside. Right before I was to serve it, I sautéed the fiddleheads in a bit of olive oil and topped the salad with the warm ferns and a squeeze of lemon. It was perfect.
If you want the salad to be your main course, feel free to add some toasted pine nuts and serve it with crusty bread. I would be happy with that meal any night of the week. I served our dinner with a slice of homemade white pizza topped with asparagus since it was Meatless Monday and I like to go vegetarian on Monday nights.