If you've ever seen a fiddlehead fern, you probably already know how it got its name. This name refers to tightly coiled fronds of an immature fern that is harvested for culinary purposes; at this stage, it looks like the top of a shepherd crook, or like the topmost part of a fiddle. As the fern gets older, this distinctive shape falls away as the fronds straighten out due to growth. The name is quite clear, but then, where does this homely little plant fit in in the kitchen?
The answer is that the fiddlehead fern has a long and illustrious history when it comes to the culinary arts. It has been eaten in various cultures in as diverse locations as North American and Asia, and it has been prepared in many ways as well. In Japan, for instance, fiddlehead ferns are known as warabi, and they are often simmered in salted water until they are soft, and then placed in ice water to preserve the color. Today in the United States, they are a popular delicacy on the Eastern seaboard. They are served steamed or lightly cooked in butter, or they may also be pickled in dill for sandwiches or snacks.
There are a few risks associated with eating fiddlehead ferns. They have been implicated in a few cases of food poisoning, but the risk for this seems to go away entirely when the plant is cooked. It is also important to note that these plants contain thiaminase, which can lead to beriberi or vitamin B complex if your system is already weakened or if the ferns are consumed in excess.
When you are cooking fiddlehead ferns, start by removing the yellow or brown skin to remove the vibrant green color underneath. Then place them in water and bring them to a boil twice, changing the water between the boilings. You may also wish to steam them instead; about twenty minutes worth of steaming can leave them deliciously tender, and they can be eaten with just a little bit of pepper and salt to bring out the flavor.
Fiddlehead ferns have a fairly mild, somewhat nutty taste that is similar to asparagus. They are fairly good with blander, sweeter foods, like cheese and apples, and they can also be used to spice up a tomato sauce or other red sauce. You'll also find that they can be cooked like asparagus or tender broccoli florets, and that they will complement just about any stir-fry. The next time you see them at the supermarket or your local farmer's market, check them out. They can add a wonderfully distinctive note to your cooking, and you'll find that you'll have some great luck, whether you use them in your pasta or your chicken stir-fry!