Down East 2013 ©
Tender shoots of ostrich fern pushing their furled tips through the ground . . . fiddleheads are a sure sign of spring in Maine and a delicacy to be savored for but a brief time.
The young, coiled leaves of the ostrich fern emerge in clusters of three to ten or so along the banks of rivers and streams in the Northeast; their flavor is fresh and a bit earthy, not unlike asparagus, and when picked at only an inch or two high they are delicate and tender. Guests sailing in the early part of the season may be treated to fresh fiddleheads, and they are just rare enough that many people have never seen or heard of them. If a schooner cook is fortunate enough to acquire an abundance, he or she may pickle them for enjoyment later on in the season. Because the islands in Penobscot Bay are a few weeks behind the mainland in greeting spring, fiddleheads are available along the midcoast well into June, and often later as basketfuls are sent to local markets from harvesters further Down East and up north. They command a high price at market, because they are wild and not easily gathered, and as soon as they begin to mature to full ferns they are no longer desirable.
They are delicious when fresh, sautéed simply and quickly, but are also delightful when blanched, chilled, and marinated for a salad. Leftover fiddleheads make a wonderful Vermont Fiddlehead Pie, which schooner cooks would call quiche, or they can be tossed with pasta or risotto and other early spring veggies for an authentic primavera. Although delicious by themselves, if supply is limited they can be combined with other veggies — mushrooms and leeks are wonderful flavors to pair .
To prepare fiddleheads, they first require thorough cleaning; they grow with a brown, papery covering on the uncoiled fern. They should be rinsed several times in cool water before being cooked. Bring lightly salted water to a boil, add washed fiddleheads, and cook for about 10 minutes or until tender when pierced with a fork. They can also be steamed, if you prefer; they reserve their delicate flavor better with steaming. Blanching fiddleheads is advantageous for schooner cooks because the procedure can be done several hours in advance, and they'll need just a quick "stir fry" right before serving. They are blanched in the same manner as other vegetables—dropped into boiling water and allowed to cook for as long as it takes the water to return to a full boil, then drained and covered with ice or plunged into very cold water. Once thoroughly chilled, drain them and set them aside until ready to use them. After blanching, they can be used in any of the manners described above; below are some specific suggestions.
Fiddleheads with Browned Butter, Shallots, and Mushrooms
3 Tbsp butter
¼ cup finely chopped shallots (or onions)
½ cup sliced mushrooms
1 to 1½ lbs blanched fiddleheads
Salt and pepper
In a sauté pan, heat butter until sizzling. Lower heat and cook gently until butter browns and gives a rich, nutty odor. Add chopped shallots and cook until tender, then stir in mushrooms and fiddleheads and continue to cook until fiddleheads are tender and heated through. Season to taste.
Serves 4 to 6
Fiddleheads with Leeks, Garlic, and Lemon
2 Tbsp butter or olive oil
2 Cups washed, sliced leeks or ramps
1 Tbsp minced garlic
2 Cups blanched fiddleheads
1 fresh lemon, zested and then juiced to yield 1 Tbsp of zest and 1 Tbsp juice.
¼ cup fruity white wine
Salt and pepper
In a sauté pan, heat butter or olive oil, add leeks and cook until just starting to get tender. Add garlic and sauté for just a minute, add fiddleheads, lemon zest, nutmeg and sauté until tender. Turn vegetables out onto serving platter, add lemon juice and wine to pan and return to stove, raising the heat. Allow liquid to reduce by about a third, season, and pour over the platter of leeks and fiddle heads.
Serves 4 to 6
About two pounds blanched fiddle heads
½ cup red wine vinegar
¼ cup vegetable oil
¼ cup water
¼ cup granulated sugar
2 cloves fresh garlic, minced
2 Tbsp Dijon-style mustard
Salt and pepper to taste
Whisk together marinade briskly until sugar and mustard are well incorporated into the liquids. Pour over fiddleheads and toss until all of the coils are coated with the dressing. May be refrigerated for a few weeks. Serve on a bed of fresh spring greens topped with shaved parmesan or slices of chèvre, with garlic croutes to accompany.
Recipes provided by Eileen Worthley, former cook aboard the Isaac H. Evans and American Eagle. For more information on the Maine Windjammer Association, visit its website here. (www.sailmainecoast.com ).