While almost everyone has heard of "fiddlehead ferns," the coiled, emerging tip of certain varities of wild ferns, most people think only of the Eastern Fiddlehead, the Ostrich fern (Matteucia struthiopteris) when they think of edible fiddleheads.
But there is another widely consumed wild fern, the lady fern (Athyrium filix-femina). The Lady fern is a primarily a Western fern variety with growing ranges from California to Alaska, although they have been reported to be found growing in eastern Canada. Lady fern fiddleheads, often referred to simply as "western fiddleheads," are less popular than the Eastern ostrich fern fiddleheads, because of the slightly bitter flavor that they sometimes have - especially when not prepared properly.
The texture of the western fiddlehead is crunchy and juicy. The flavor of fiddleheads is strongly grassy and woodsy with a pronounced tannic (occasionally astringent) finish. But with proper cooking, the flavor of western fiddleheads develops fully and the bitter tannic finish dissipates.
IMPORTANT: All Fiddleheads should always be cooked before consumption and should NEVER be eaten raw.
To enjoy western fiddleheads, they must first be blanched. Rinse the fiddleheads under cold running water to remove any bits of chaff or debris. Trim the ends to remove any discolored parts, if desired. Cook for 1 - 2 minutes in a large pot of rapidly boiling, salted water. Drain the fiddleheads and quickly plunge into cold water to retain their crisp texture and to prevent overcooking.
Blanched fiddleheads can be finished in any number of ways, but one of the simplest (and best) methods is to saute them in butter for a few minutes. Finish with a pinch of salt and a dash of pepper. Their wild, green spring-like flavor will shine through.
Blanched fiddleheads may also be marinated or pickled, used in salads, soups, stir frys and casseroles. Pair them with other spring delicacies, such as morel mushrooms or ramps (wild leeks).
Fiddleheads can last for a week or more in the refrigerator, but are at their best when consumed as soon as possible after picking. Keep them tightly sealed in a plastic bag in the refrigerator. Fiddleheads may exude a dark colored liquid while they are being stored. The dark color is nothing more than the tannins leaching from the cut ends of the fiddleheads. Simply drain and rinse before blanching.
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