New Brunswick·Video

Return of the fern: Tasty new reasons to toast fiddlehead season in New Brunswick

As a new season begins, fiddleheads have once again sprouted across the province, and with them, the controversy over whether they're a delicacy or a dud.

These flavourful recipes and tips might just make a fiddlehead fanatic out of you

Chef Thane Mallory, owner of Gulliver’s World Cafe in Gagetown, is a big fan of fiddleheads. He says the secret is in the preparation. (Aniekan Etuhube/CBC News)

Fiddleheads have once again sprouted along the rivers and in the forests of New Brunswick, and with them the seasonal controversy over whether they're a delicacy or a dud.

Fiddleheads, the curled, edible shoots of the ostrich fern, are seen in early spring in woodland areas or along waterways across the province. They are highly nutritious and rich in omega-3 and 6, iron, fibre and potassium.

In the culinary world, fiddleheads have evolved from being considered a humble gutter grass to being revered as a gourmet treat.

Chef Thane Mallory, owner of Gulliver's World Café in Gagetown, about  58 kilometres southeast of Fredericton, is a fan of the fiddlehead and prepares them in many different ways.

According to Mallory, some people who dislike fiddleheads or have had a bad experience with them have in fact simply had fiddleheads that were "improperly cooked."

"The key thing with fiddleheads is to make sure that they are properly prepared," he said.

Fiddlehead pizza with Alfredo sauce and mixed melted cheeses. (Aniekan Etuhube/CBC News)

Vegetable fraught with danger

Despite being packed with nutrients, fiddleheads contain dangerous toxins if prepared or cooked improperly. 

The level of severity depends on where you pick them and your own tolerance, but when properly cooked, the fern is perfectly safe to consume.

"When you are picking the fiddleheads, it can be somewhat of a Russian roulette," said Mallory. "You can be lucky because you can find an area where there are no toxins and you can pick them and eat them."

Mallory prefers not to take chances.

"I'm less of a gambler so I want to make sure I know where the fiddleheads are coming from, and I want to make sure they are cooked," he said.

"There are a whole bunch of variables," especially with the toxins, he said.

The effects of eating raw or undercooked fiddleheads can range from mild discomfort to serious illness.

Mallory recommends washing the fiddleheads at least twice – and preferably three to four times – before cooking, and then cooking them thoroughly for 15 minutes.

These flavourful takes on fiddleheads might change your mind about the spring fern

2 months ago
Duration 5:02
Fiddlehead pizza and fiddlehead fritters with a side of tangy crema are just two bud-bursting ways you could try fiddleheads this spring

Don't ask, don't tell

While fiddleheads are widely available at local markets, much of the seasonal fun for enthusiasts comes from foraging the ferns themselves.

But fiddlehead locations aren't widely shared among New Brunswickers.

"Everyone has a secret place, and they will never tell you where their secret place is," Mallory said.

"If you've stumbled across fiddleheads, it's like you've found gold." 

Inflation resistant

These price of fiddleheads has remained the same over the years, despite inflation.

The average price for fiddleheads in New Brunswick is about $5 a pound, and can climb as high as $7.99 a pound, Mallory said.

Mallory has been eating them for as long as he can remember. But while "steamed, with vinegar and butter" may be the go-to for many, Mallory eventually developed new recipes to shake things up a bit.

"As a child we ate a lot of fiddleheads, so after a while, it was just like, 'This is so regular,' " he said. 

"So we wanted to do something that was a little different." 

Sure, you can steam them. But chef Thane Mallory's crunchy, savoury fiddlehead fritters with a tangy crema sauce are a revelation. (Aniekan Etuhube/CBC News)

My first time eating fiddleheads

I sat down with Mallory to try this unique vegetable for the first time, and the experience came with some surprises.

Contrary to what I had heard, fiddleheads did not taste grassy at all. In fact they were actually quite good, especially when made into fritters and pizza.

The fritters were crunchy on the outside and soft on the inside, with a nice, savoury texture to the corn flour mixture. Dipped in crema sauce, they were like fireworks on my tastebuds. 

A fiddlehead pizza will never let you down. Faced with those gorgeous, curly ferns topping a crusty pizza garnished with exotic fried mushrooms and bacon and held together by mixed melted cheeses, I just kept digging in.

My experience taught me several things. For starters, fiddleheads are far from "gutter salads." They're delicious and I'm looking forward to eating them again.

For those who disagree, I'd encourage you to try Mallory's twists on a seasonal classic. Here's a sampling to get you started:

Fiddlehead Fritters with Tangy Crema Sauce

Ingredients

• 1/2 tbsp onion powder

• 1/2 tbsp garlic powder

• 1 cup all-purpose flour

• 1/2 cup of yellow cornmeal

• 1/2 cup of cornflour

• 1 tsp baking powder

• 1 1/2 tsp kosher salt, plus more for finishing

• 1 1/2 tsp sugar

• 1 cup of cleaned & cooked fiddleheads

• 1 large egg

• 1 cup whole milk

• 1/2 a lime

• 1/4 cup of sour cream

• Pinch of parsley

• Vegetable oil for frying

Preparation

Combine all dry ingredients in a bowl. Whisk the egg and milk in another bowl. Whisk the egg mixture into the dry mixture until smooth. Cover and chill for 30 minutes.

While the mixture is cooling, cook fiddleheads for 15 minutes and then cool in an ice bath. 

Chop fiddleheads in half.

Prepare crema sauce by combining sour cream, parsley and a squirt of lime to taste.

Mix chopped fiddleheads into batter.

Heat 2 inches vegetable oil in a large pot over medium heat until a deep-fry thermometer registers 350 degrees F. 

Working in batches, carefully drop heaping tablespoonfuls of batter into the hot oil. Fry, stirring occasionally, until golden, about 8 minutes per batch (return the oil to 350 degrees F between batches).

Transfer to a paper towel-lined baking sheet using a slotted spoon. Sprinkle with salt.

Let rest a few minutes before serving.

Fiddlehead Pizza

Ingredients

• 1- 9x 12 sheet of store-bought puff pastry

• 1/4 cup of store-bought Alfredo sauce

• 1 egg yolk

• 24 cooked fiddleheads

• 2 tbsp of bacon bits

• 1/8 cup sautéed mixed mushrooms

• 1 cup of grated mixed cheese (mozzarella, havarti, parmesan)

Preparation

Thaw puff pastry in the fridge overnight or for at least 4 hours. 

Prepare and cook all ingredients.

Preheat the oven to 450 degrees.

Unroll pastry on parchment paper-lined cookie sheet. Fold the edge of the pastry sheet by half an inch and crimp with a fork. Brush crust with beaten egg yolk.

Spread Alfredo sauce evenly over pastry. Spread bacon bites evenly, Spread mushrooms evenly.

Spread cheese evenly. Place the fiddleheads in rows until pastry is covered

Cook in the oven for 10 minutes. Check in 7 minutes, as oven temperatures vary.

Let rest a few minutes before cutting and serving.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Aniekan Etuhube

Video Journalist

Aniekan Etuhube is a video journalist with CBC New Brunswick based in Fredericton. He previously worked with Pulse.Africa and has far-reaching experience in visual storytelling and human interest stories.

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