Market Mondays – Fiddleheads

There’s a phenomenon on Twitter where people will mention or retweet something and create a buzz, but the buzz fails. For instance, a dozen people will mention a food-related event but none of them will actually attend. The same kind of failed buzz seems to be happening with seasonal produce. I’m seeing piles of people squeeing about ramps and fiddleheads, but none of that excitement translating to blog posts showing what they’ve been cooking with these seasonal glories.

In fact, the only mention I’ve seen about fiddleheads in terms of someone having purchased and prepared the things is pickling. No references to the fresh product at all. Which makes me think that maybe people still don’t know what to do with fiddleheads, even though they’re turning up everywhere.

Up until a few years ago, the few people in Toronto (mostly ex-pat Maritimers) who knew and loved fiddleheads were happy to have one small feed of them each June. There was one produce shop in Kensington Market that would bring them in from Nova Scotia and by the time they made it to the store shelves they were already starting to go off. Sobey’s stores (based in Nova Scotia) would sometime get them in as well, albeit in very small quantities.

While the Ostrich Fern is native to Ontario, nobody seemed to pick up on the fact that the things are mighty tasty until a few years ago – probably after having listened to a Maritimer friend bemoan the lack of them one time too many.

So now they’re everywhere – and people are excited – but still… nobody seems to be doing much with them.

When purchasing fresh fiddleheads, look for a tight coil, a bright green colour, and a firm, crisp stem. Do not be alarmed by bits of papery brown chaff – this can be removed when rinsing – but avoid darkened, mushy heads that have begun to uncoil. Fresh fiddleheads can be stored in the refrigerator for up to three days, wrapped in plastic.

To prepare fresh fiddleheads, rinse thoroughly to remove the brown chaff and any dirt. Trim the ends, and then quickly boil or steam until they can easily be pierced with the tip of a knife, about 8 minutes. The cooking water will be a greenish brown colour – do not be alarmed by this, but do not use this water for stock, as it is very bitter. Note that if you are using the fiddleheads in a dish where they will be grilled or stir-fried, you must still boil them first. Do not serve fiddleheads raw as they are potentially carcinogenic until cooked.

Fiddleheads are comparable in taste to asparagus, with a more earthy, sometimes mushroomy undertone. They are a good source of potassium and also contain vitamin C, niacin and iron.

So how the heck to serve them? The quickest, easiest and most traditional way to eat fiddleheads is similar to asparagus – boil them until tender but not mushy, drain, and toss with butter, garlic, salt and pepper and a squeeze of lemon. I normally serve them this way as a side dish to maple-glazed trout. I’ve also had great success adding them to risotto, and they make a delicious soup, although it always seems like such a waste to me to destroy the aesthetics of something so unique-looking.

Instead of the pickling that everyone seems to enamoured with, I’m also more inclined to blanch and freeze my fiddleheads so they can be used in a larger variety of dishes throughout the year. One of our favourite ways to cook with fiddleheads is to add them to a quiche with lobster or crab. This recipe is based on the quiche recipe from the Better Homes and Gardens New Cookbook.

Fiddlehead and Lobster Quiche
1 recipe pastry for single-crust pie
4 eggs, lightly beaten
1 cup milk
1/4 cup sliced green onions
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon black pepper
Dash ground nutmeg
3/4 cup chopped cooked lobster or crabmeat
3/4 cup whole, blanched fiddleheads
1 cup shredded cheese (Gouda or Emmenthal)
1 tablespoon all-purpose flour

Prepare and roll out Pastry for Single-Crust Pie or unroll refrigerated pie crust according to package directions. Line a 9-inch pie plate with pastry. Trim; crimp edge as desired. Line unpricked pastry with a double thickness of foil. Bake in a 450°F for 8 minutes. Remove foil. Bake for 4 to 5 minutes more or until pastry is set and dry. Remove from oven. Reduce oven temperature to 350°F.

Meanwhile, in medium bowl stir together eggs, flour, milk, green onions, salt, pepper, and nutmeg. Stir in lobster and fiddleheads. Add cheese; mix well.

Pour egg mixture into hot, baked pastry shell. Bake in the 350°F oven for 40 to 45 minutes or until knife inserted near centre comes out clean. Let stand 10 minutes before serving. Makes 6 servings.