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The Beauty of Fiddleheads: It's Spring

Greens: These elusive wild ferns are proof that the gray days of winter are gone for another year and that new life is about to appear.


LINCOLN, Mass. — I fell in love with the evocative fiddlehead when I moved back East after 17 years on the West Coast. I think you must experience the long gray days of winter to appreciate the fiddlehead as a sentimental and poetic harbinger of spring.

I loved its look--tightly coiled and newly formed, so like its namesake, the scrolled end of a violin--a verdant contrast to the dark, wet aura of winter.

The fiddleheads carry a prophetic sense of raw life about to form, and I imagined the bold green fern shoots trapped by oblique cuts of light on a chilly spring morning.

Seduced by their symbolism, I purchased a pound of these wild seasonal greens. As I quickly researched how to prepare my exotic find, I came to appreciate their elusiveness. They are, indeed, the perfect transitional gastronomic ritual.

The fiddlehead remains uncultivated and is foraged and picked in the wild by the sturdiest of souls. Thousands of pounds of fiddleheads in large green trash bags are hauled from the woods and streams by their foragers--a seasonal event with no formal planting, no organized harvest.

Fiddleheads are a growth stage, not a species: the sprouted unfurled tips (known by their French name of crosier) of young ferns, primarily the ostrich fern. Like wild mushroom collecting, fiddlehead picking is best left to knowledgeable foragers.

They are found in rich woods and along riverbanks and streams in the Northeast at the beginning of May and in mid-April in the Northwest. They also grow in the Great Lakes states as well as Canada, Europe and Asia.

Fiddlehead season is a few weeks, the picking stage brief. As tender and delicate as fiddleheads are, they can become tough and fibrous in a matter of hours. Snapped when just 2 to 5 inches in length, these delectable discs can "blow" or "bolt" (into full feathered fern extensions) in just one day if it gets hot.

Lyn Thurston of Blue Sky Produce in Gorham, Maine, a distributor of these transitory shoots, explains that from the actual first news that "there's fiddleheads," often a mere 24 hours pass before they're picked, packed, shipped and sold. And they must be prepared, if not eaten, just as expeditiously. Once prepared, however, they will keep for about a week and for much longer when frozen.

Butch Wells Jr. of W.S. Wells & Son in Wilton, Maine, is co-owner of the Belle of Maine label of canned and freeze-dried local items and a fourth-generation fiddlehead processor. He says they processed 68,000 pounds of fiddleheads last year, a bit above average for them. In a really good year, they would process 40 tons.

Nothing about the fiddlehead is easy. But if, like me, you are a lover of vegetables and greens, you will appreciate the ritualistic effort.

The first step is to cut the fibrous stems. Then the fronds must be soaked in a bowl of cold water to remove the layer of fuzz or light brown "stuff"--as chef and author Jasper White so succinctly refers to the paper-thin membrane or flaky casings. Repeated soaking and rinsing works well.

Aficionados who savor the freshness and unique flavor--likened to that of asparagus, artichokes and morels--cook the fiddleheads immediately. Barely sauteed in butter with lemon juice or a touch of vinegar, seasoned merely with salt and pepper, or steamed or boiled until tender (12 to 15 minutes) and served with a traditional hollandaise sauce are favored methods.

If you're not cooking the greens immediately, however, or would like to freeze them, the second step after cleaning is to blanch them in boiling salted water. They should be blanched for about one minute, then rinsed in very cold water. Some cooks suggest double blanching.

The clean, blanched fiddleheads will keep for about a week in the refrigerator or are ready to freeze. (Frozen fiddleheads can last up to a year and are fine for soups and other dishes using a more well-cooked green.)

With its deep green color and subtle, delicate flavor, the fiddlehead lends itself to many dishes. I have found that you can substitute them in salads, soups, quiches and other recipes calling for asparagus, if you want to experiment.

I also discovered some esoteric recipes like fiddlehead ice cream. While searching for more recipes, I ended up speaking to Helen Gibbs of Monroe, Maine, whose husband, Derol, known as the Fiddlehead King of Monroe County, is a retired forager.

Derol and Helen, along with the Monroe Sportsmen's Club, used to produce the Maine State Fiddlehead Festival in Unity, where you could buy bags of the last of the season's fresh greens and sample official recipes.

Among seasonal selections produced for the event were Helen Gibbs' Fiddlehead Doughnuts, Seekins' Fiddlehead Balls, Julianna's Fiddlehead Ravioli and the curiously named Impossible Fiddlehead Pie--all highlights of this unfortunately bygone celebration.

Although the Gibbses' picking days are over, their eating days are not. A few weeks ago, Helen predicted that the fiddleheads would be late this year because of the long and harsh winter.

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