Fiddlehead ferns, the unfurled frond from a young springtime fern, are one of the nature's most curious vegetables. When I was just in New England, my mother and I went to the farm where she grew up. This is one of my favorite places on earth, the Bryant Farm in Cummington, Massachusetts, kind of the foothills of the Berkshires. Along the sides of the road, next to the stone wall, tons of fiddlehead ferns were growing. She got so excited!
Growing up, I loved the fact that my mother knew how to make a meal with things that weren't from the grocery store. We didn't call it foraging then. We just thought of it as free food that tasted good. My mother knew the right fiddlehead ferns to pick, the perfect time to pick dandelion leaves before the flowers arrived, she knew where to find wild blueberries and strawberries way up the lane and she picked milkweeds at the height of spring.
She told me this story that one time her cousin came to visit from the "city." There was a bowl of milkweeds on the table and he asked what they were. My grandmother said, "Milkweeds!" He said, "Oh my, next time I come you'll be eating the bark off the trees!"
I don't think she knew that fiddleheads were so named because they resembled the carved wood on a violin or fiddle. But she did know the art of foraging for them and she knew to pick the tops from the ostrich ferns, the ones that are eatable. They grow in the northeastern US for about a month in the spring. Pick fiddleheads when they're bright jade green. How do they taste? I always describe them as tasting "green," kind of nutty and slightly bitter. Some say they're flavor resembles asparagus, green beans or artichokes but I think those descriptors are pretty far fetched.
One thing is for sure, once you've picked them, you will want to eat them immediately after rinsing under cold water.
FIDDLEHEAD FERNS WITH BROWN BUTTER AND LEMON
1 pound of fiddlehead ferns, washed
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
1 teaspoon freshly grated lemon zest
Few drop of lemon juice
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Remove the brown paper "silk" from the fiddlehead ferns.
Bring a saucepan of water to a boil. Add the fiddlehead ferns and drain immediately.
In a frying pan, melt the butter over medium high heat and melt the butter. Continue to cook for 30 to 6 seconds until the butter turns light golden. Add the ferns and continue to cook until the ferns are tender, 6 to 8 minutes. Add the lemon zest, lemon juice and season with salt and pepper. Serve immediately.
Serves 1 to 6 (1 if my mother is at the table!)