DULUTH -- One of the first and tastiest harbingers of spring makes its appearance at this time of year. As bloodroot blossoms, ferns begin to wake from their winter nap.
The plentiful ostrich fern pokes its shoots from the forest floor, providing Northland residents with a fleeting opportunity to harvest one of my favorite seasonal vegetables — fiddleheads. But the window to sample this ephemeral woodland treat is narrow. The ferns should be gathered while still tightly coiled. Once they start to unfurl, you’ve missed the boat.
When you see brown fronds from the previous season, fiddleheads are likely nearby.
The edible ostrich fern is easy to identify. Look for a smooth, rounded bright green stem with a u-shaped groove on one side. Avoid any hairy-looking shoots.
Be careful not to to gather foxglove or bracken ferns by mistake, as they can be toxic or even carcinogenic.
I like to harvest fiddleheads with a puukko, but any small knife will do the trick. Take the fiddlehead — the coiled frond section that resembles the scrolled head of a violin — and about an inch of stem. It’s a good idea to harvest with some restraint, leaving ferns with several shoots to spare so as to ensure the plant’s longevity.
Fiddleheads shed a papery brown scale as they emerge. You’ll want to discard that.
Don’t eat these puppies raw or you’re likely to get food poisoning.
I usually fill a sink with water, dump in the fiddleheads and agitate the basin to remove any remaining scale or forest floor debris.
There are many ways to prepare fiddleheads, but my go-to technique is to blanche them first by submerging them in a pot of boiling water.
Meanwhile, I fill a bowl with cold water and some ice.
After several minutes at a boil, I pour the pot through a colander and promptly dump the reserved fiddleheads in the ice water bath to stop them from cooking any further. They should still have some snap at this point
The next step is to drain and dry the fiddleheads.
At this point, you could freeze your fiddleheads or better yet, just use them.
I like to saute fiddleheads in butter and olive oil with aromatics, such as a bit of garlic, some shallots, green onions or best of all, wild ramps, to stick with the foraging theme.
Fiddleheads taste a bit like asparagus, though somewhat milder to my taste. I’ve also heard them compared to green beans with sort of an earthy undertone.
They make for a respectable vegetable side dish on their own, but you can dress them up, as well.
Fiddleheads can be a great addition to omelettes or other egg dishes.
Then again, you can let your imagination run wild.
This past weekend, we served them for Mother’s Day dinner, sauteed with shallots, scallops, balsamic vinegar and a splash of wine tossed in a bowl of pasta with a generous squeeze of lemon juice and a sprinkle of pepper and parmesan.
Some people serve fiddleheads with hollandaise sauce. I’ve also heard pickled fiddleheads are a thing, although I’ve never tried that.
This woodland vegetable is surprisingly versatile, but soon it will be past its prime in these parts.
Go for a walk in the woods soon, and there’s a good chance you’ll find some fiddleheads. Even if you don’t, it’s a good excuse if you need one to get outside and soak up the Northland’s reawakening landscape.