It may sound like the name of a chain restaurant, the type that would serve all-you-can-eat breadsticks, but fiddleheads are actually a delicious wild green that tastes a little like asparagus. So named because they’re curled like the end of a violin, fiddleheads come from the shoot of the ostrich fern, a plant that grows in the woods all over New England. They’re abundant around here right now (your timetable may vary).
Part of the mystique of fiddleheads is that the places they grow are usually local secrets, shared only among friends. If you want to try foraging for fiddleheads near where you live, look in moist, shady spots, ideally near a stream. Please beware: some varieties of ferns are poisonous. The one you want is the ostrich fern. Matteuccia struthiopteris, to be botanical about it.
To recognize it, look for the dead fern stalks left over from last year. The dried leaves on the plant resemble feathers (not little round beads). The stem has a channel up the middle, like a stalk of celery. And the fiddleheads themselves should be shiny emerald green, with a papery brown skin, not fuzzy or hairy-looking.
Remember, when you gather any wild edible, be respectful to the plants and pick lightly. If you clean the patch out, you probably won’t see them again next year.
If you’re unsure of which ferns to pick, or you can’t find any nearby, you can also buy fiddleheads at many farmers markets and grocery stores this time of year.
To prepare, rinse the fiddleheads individually until their brown husks fall off. Some sources recommend boiling them for 10 minutes to remove toxins, but that just makes them gray and mushy -- yuck. Most people I know cook them for a much briefer time, and none of us has keeled over yet.
(Note: I just heard from a friend who did get sick once eating undercooked fiddleheads, so if in doubt, err on the side of thorough cooking.)
Fiddleheads are full of vitamins A and C, niacin, potassium, and other trace nutrients. Like many other spring greens, they’re said to be cleansing and purifying. They’re only around for a couple of weeks, so enjoy them while you can!
Trim any tough ends from the stems and run them under a strong stream of water until the brown skins have washed away.
Heat the olive oil in a sauté pan over medium-high heat. Add the bacon or pancetta, if using, and cook, stirring, until lightly browned. Add the ferns and garlic and cook, covered, for 3 to 4 minutes. Uncover and cook an additional 3 to 4 minutes or until they are tender but still slightly crunchy. Add salt and pepper to taste and serve immediately.