Fiddleheads, so called because the tightly furled shoots of the oyster fern look like the gracefully curved scroll at the end of a fiddle, are at the tail end of the season here in Maine and just about disappearing as they develop into full-fledged ferns. There are plenty of them along the banks of brooks and streams–the rainy spring has brought them out.
They are a welcome treat and one of the few vegetables (purslane is another) that are a good source of Omega-3 fatty acids. Well, I say they’re a good source but you’d actually have to eat a powerful lot of fiddleheads to get the Omega-3s that are in a quarter-pound of salmon, wild or farmed. My mother said spring greens were a tonic for the blood. “Your blood is thin after winter,” she explained, “you need a boost of iron.” Iron boost or not, these spring greens are just plain delicious–but they must be cooked before eating.
Apparently some people get ill from eating raw fiddleheads although no one is exactly clear on what it is that causes the illness, i.e., whether it’s the chemistry of fiddleheads themselves or possibly contamination from a water source. In any case, cook them for sure–and that’s dead easy. I like to treat them like any spring greens, first brushing off the brown papery scales that cling to the greens, then steaming or boiling in water, but briefly, just enough to soften them slightly, finally finishing them off in a skillet with olive oil, a hint of chopped garlic, and a little pinch of flaked red chili peppers.
The flavor? It reminds me most of the wild asparagus we find in Italy at the same season–fresh, green, sweet, but with a pleasant hint of bitterness too. And at the first bite, I can already feel the tonic start to work–Popeye on steroids.