Not Your Parents’ Fiddlehead Recipes

There are a number of signs that herald spring’s arrival in Maine, from the thin haze of pollen on our windshields as we begin our morning commutes to the sound of peepers singing us to sleep wherever there is still water for them to call home, but for a food lover, one of the surest signs is the emergence of fiddlehead foragers. Parked in small lots, with handmade signs advertising clean fiddleheads — $3, $4, $5 a pound — they beckon to us, because they know we will come. It’s been just over a week since my first sighting, and fiddlehead season is still in full swing, by all appearances. Even Hannaford’s produce department has a bin of the tightly-wound ferns on display. Personally, I bought three pounds from a pickup truck parked off of Broadway.

For those who aren’t in the know, in theis region at least, fiddleheads are the young shoots of the Ostrich fern, found in abundance in the New England woods by those souls enterprising enough to seek them out. They are traditionally steamed or boiled, and have a flavor not unlike spinach or asparagus. Fiddleheads are part of a number of other regional cuisines, such as Indonesia’s gulai pakis, which is fiddlehead ferns cooked in a rich, spicy coconut sauce; in India, they are pickled to make lingri ka achaar.

Contrary to popular lore, the typical Maine fiddleheads are not carcinogenic, nor do they need to be boiled beyond recognition to be safely consumed. Some fiddleheads may be dangerous, but the Ostrich fern has been found to be non-toxic, though it certainly doesn’t hurt to make sure you wash and cook them well before consuming, because they may harbor microbes or bacteria from the forest floor. For more information on being safe when preparing and eating fiddleheads, check out UMaine’s fiddlehead safety facts.

I grew up eating them, as most of my contemporaries probably also did, overcooked and smothered in butter and vinegar. They were still tasty, but no more exciting than canned spinach, for example. I decided I wanted to make them a little more exciting, so I have prepared them for you three ways. First, sautéed with chicken and served over a bright, lemony quinoa. Second, beer-battered and dipped in garlic chive aioli (Though I didn’t follow his recipe, the inspiration comes from Dave of Third, and finally, sautéed with rendered panchetta and baked into a quiche. If you’re already fiddleheaded out for the season, buy some anyway — they can be blanched and frozen for a rainy day.

Sautéed Fiddleheads with Chicken

  • 1 pound boneless, skinless chicken breast, halved and sliced
  • 1 pound cleaned fiddleheads
  • 2-3 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • sea salt and freshly cracked black pepper to taste

This is really a very simple dish. First, add your olive oil, garlic and red pepper flakes to a medium sauté pan over medium-high heat. When it becomes fragrant, add the fiddleheads and toss. Cook until the fiddleheads are lightly browned, then add chicken and cook through. Finish with sea salt and freshly cracked black pepper, and serve over lemon quinoa (recipe here.)

Beer-Battered Fiddleheads with Garlic Chive Aioli

  • 1 pound cleaned fiddleheads
  • 1 cup self-rising flour
  • 1 12-oz beer
  • 1 cup mayonnaise
  • 2 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1-2 tablespoons chives, chopped

In a bowl, add beer to flour until it forms a thin batter. Toss fiddleheads in the batter a cup or so at a time, and drop gently into hot oil (about 350°.) When batter is crispy and golden brown, remove from oil to paper towel to drain. Whisk together mayo, garlic and chives to dip.

Fiddlehead and Pancetta Quiche

  • 1 pound cleaned fiddleheads
  • 1/3 pound panchetta, chopped
  • 1 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
  • 4 large eggs
  • 1/2 cup buttermilk
  • 1 cup ricotta cheese
  • 1 cup shredded Italian blend cheese
  • 1 cup flour
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 cup ice water
  • 1/2 cup olive oil

In a bowl, combine flour and salt. Separately, whisk together ice water and olive oil until blended, then add to flour mixture. Knead lightly and press the resulting dough into a pie plate. Preheat oven to 350°F. In a sauté pan, begin to heat pancetta until it is crispy. Add fiddleheads and red pepper flakes and sauté in the drippings. When the fiddleheads are cooked through, remove from heat to cool. In a bowl, whisk eggs with buttermilk, then add ricotta. Stir in Italian blend cheeses, reserving a little to sprinkle on top before baking, then add pancetta and fiddleheads (using a slotted spoon to drain.) Mix well and pour into pie crust. Bake 25 minutes or until eggs have set.

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