Ingredient Spotlight: Fiddleheads

Last week marked the beginning of spring. Along with asparagus, peas, ramps, morels and the plethora of other gems of the season comes fiddleheads. Sometimes referred to as fiddlehead ferns, fiddlehead greens or crozier, the fiddlehead is a new growth frond of—you guessed it—a fern. It gets its name from the similarly curled shape at the top of a fiddle.

Fiddleheads generally make their presence sometime between early and mid-spring, depending on where you live, and are only available for a fleeting span of time. The prized produce is harvested commercially, but it seems that more often many take matters into their own hands by foraging. The latter method, however, comes with a set of dangerous challenges.

There are thousands of fern varieties, but some are harmful, ranging from poisonous to carcinogenic. (Nineteenth-century French botanist Constantine Rafinesque died of stomach cancer that is believed to have been caused by his consumption of nefarious ferns.) In North America, fiddleheads from the ostrich fern are the ones that are most commonly consumed, though there are others. If foraging for this springtime treat, it is imperative to go with an expert to avoid any dangerous species (in addition to the standard rules of not over-harvesting).

Though they are sometimes covered in a brown papery skin—which can be easily rubbed off—fiddleheads should be a bright green and tightly coiled. You should discard any with discoloration or that have started to unfurl. The produce starts to deteriorate quickly after harvest, so it's best to consume them within a day or two after harvesting to preserve the fiddleheads' delicate flavor and crunchy texture.

When it comes time to prepare fiddleheads, you should remove any stem longer than an inch or two and then rinse them in cold water to remove any dirt or grit. And though you might be tempted, never eat them raw. Fiddleheads should always be cooked for at least five minutes because even "safe" varieties can contain a small amount of toxins.

Fiddleheads are fairly nutritious, serving as a good source of iron, fiber, potassium, antioxidants and omega-3 fatty acids. And in terms of flavor, the taste of fiddleheads has been likened to a mix-and-match combination of asparagus, green beans, broccoli, artichokes and spinach depending on who you ask. When it comes to cooking, many suggest it be prepared in a method similar to one of its flavor relatives—simply so as not to overpower the delicate flavor of fiddleheads. You can also pickle fiddleheads (after blanching first) to extend their shelf life to enjoy during other times of the year.

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