Fiddleheads! The fleeting springtime treat and the perfect tart for featuring them
If you're lucky enough to snag this harbinger of spring, here's an idea for enjoying them
Fiddleheads grew in a lush, swaying, lime-green swath around my Quebec childhood home. In my mind’s eye, they grew 10 feet deep, and every year they extended their reach farther into the lawn via underground rhizomes and seeds scattered by the wind. There were so many that the basket-loads my father would harvest and sauté in butter didn’t even make a dent.
It’s their love of shade that makes fiddleheads — which are ferns after all — an essential indigenous edible even for many city dwellers across Canada. Ferns thrive in rich soil, dense with well-composted organic matter and leaf litter. They need moisture and favour part-sun to full-shade.
Fern expert Walter Muma has spent decades tramping through the woods, studying our native ferns; he knows how to grow them and eat them. “The best way to learn how to grow an indigenous plant in your own garden is to go find it in the wild, see where it likes to grow naturally and then duplicate those conditions, more or less. Ostrich ferns like it damp and often grow in bottomlands or forests along rivers, but anywhere it is shaded and dampish will do. However, they may [even] thrive if planted in less than ideal conditions.”
But a word of caution. Many know this old axiom: all Champagnes are sparkling wines, but not all sparkling wines are Champagne. Well, the same holds true for fiddleheads. All baby ferns are fiddleheads, but in Eastern Canada, the edible kind that you’ll spot most often in markets are coiled-up ostrich ferns (Matteuccia struthiopteris). The West has edible species, too, including lady fern, licorice fern and sword fern. I was thrilled to see a big display of fiddleheads at my local supermarket a few springs ago. Hanging above them was a rather ominous sign warning shoppers that fiddleheads must not be eaten raw. It’s ill-advised to eat them raw as they can cause food poisoning.
Here’s what to do with fiddleheads. If purchased (as opposed to foraged), they may be wrapped in plastic. Unwrap them as soon as possible so they can breathe, and do your best to remove the brown husk attached to them. To store them for more than a few hours, place them in a bowl of cold water in the fridge. To cook, rinse them in cold water, then trim and cook them in boiling salted water for 15 minutes before transferring them right into a bowl of icy water to shock in the colour and stop the cooking process. Once they are cold — test this by squeezing one between two fingers — drain and set them aside. Now they’re ready to add to salads, soups, pastas or wherever your imagination and tummy take you. Store them in the fridge for a couple of days or freeze blanched fiddleheads for later use in purées or soups.
Fiddleheads taste grassy and, not surprisingly, green, so they can be used almost interchangeably with asparagus, kale, spinach or nettles. They can be puréed into soups and sauces; poached, fried or roasted; cooked and served hot with butter, oil or a cream sauce; or cooked and chilled, served with a vinaigrette.
Cooking with fiddleheads is a novel, fleeting pleasure. I approach this tiny taste window the same way I do asparagus season, eating fiddleheads while they’re at their freshest and most local. Then, when it’s over, it’s over.
Fiddlehead and Caramelized Leek Ricotta Tart
This rustic galette, with its little green curls, is lovely to look at, but if fiddleheads are hard to find where you are, feel free to use asparagus pieces instead.
- 2 very large leeks, sliced (about 2 ½ cups)
- ¼ cup butter
- 1 tbsp olive oil
- ½ tsp sea salt
- ½ tsp white pepper
- Freshly ground black pepper to taste
- ¼ cup medium-dry sherry
- ½ cup ricotta
- 2 eggs, well-beaten, divided
- ¼ cup 35% whipping cream
- ¾ cup grated old Canadian cheddar
- 1 batch of your favourite pie crust recipe or frozen store-bought
- 2 cups fiddleheads, trimmed, washed, blanched, drained
Slice leeks into thin coins from the whites, to and including the tender green parts; put them in a bowl with cold water to soak. (Leeks are often full of sand or soil, so soaking helps to loosen the dirt.) Let them soak and move them around in the water, then rinse under running cold water and drain well.
In a large skillet over low to medium-low heat, add the butter and oil. Once the butter has melted, add the drained leeks, salt and both peppers, and stir. Allow the mixture to become soft and creamy; it should take about 45 minutes to an hour. Keep a close eye on it and stir often. At the end of cooking, add the sherry and allow it to burn off for a couple of seconds. Remove the skilled from the heat and set aside.
In a large bowl, add one of the beaten eggs, the ricotta, cream, cheddar,and caramelized leeks. Stir to combine well.
Pre-heat the oven to 350F degrees.
Roll pie crust out on a sheet of parchment in an uneven, rustic-looking circle. Transfer the leek mixture to the center of the pastry. Gently spread it out to almost 2 inches from the edges. Now add the fiddleheads, gently nestling them down a bit into the filling.
Fold up the crust edges, and brush the pastry with the remaining beaten egg.
Bake for 50 to 60 minutes or until the crust is golden and the filling is bubbly.
Yield: Serves 4 to 6 as an appetizer.
Signe Langford is a restaurant chef-turned-writer from Hudson, Que., now living in Port Hope, Ont. She tells award-winning stories and creates delicious recipes for such publications as: Harrowsmith (where she’s the food editor), LCBO’s Food & Drink, Today’s Parent and Watershed. In 2015, she published her award-winning book, Happy Hens & Fresh Eggs: Keeping Chickens in the Kitchen Garden with 100 Recipes. Follow her @sigster64.