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Feast on fiddleheads
Looking out for spring’s early crop

03/31/16
By Allie Ginwala aginwala@hippopress.com



 With spring’s arrival come fiddleheads, one of the state’s early season greens, and you can get the wild fern in a few ways: at a local restaurant, from the market or down by the river.

 
Harvest
Fiddlehead season starts anywhere from mid-April in southern New Hampshire to early May in the North Country, but given the warm winter they may pop up early.
“It’s probably about 10 days to two weeks from when they first pop out of the ground to when they get too old to eat,” said author, expert forager and wild foods enthusiast Russ Cohen.
He said ostrich ferns (the type with the fiddleheads you want to eat) prefer alluvial floodplain soil as a habitat, very silty soil along riverbanks and lowlands of large rivers like the Merrimack, though they can surface elsewhere.
“They do look like the top of a violin handle and it is actually the new growth of a fern,” said Liz Barbour, chef and owner of The Creative Feast. “It’s got this tight little curl and as the plant develops during the growing season it’s going to stand up and unfurl ... so you want to get it while it’s young.”
Not just any fern’s fiddlehead will do; you have to make sure to pick the right one so you don’t end up with a bad taste in your mouth. Cohen said there are easy ways to distinguish the ostrich fern. To start, go to a location along the banks of a river, under tree cover where there’s plenty of shade. 
“These little clusters of fern grow up and the clusters are vase-shaped and each curled part, if you look at the stem you’ll see it has a U-shaped groove in the inner part of the stem that runs the entire length of the stem,” he said.
Next, check out the crozier (the furled top) for brown, papery scales or bracts that flake off to the touch. Finally, look for fertile fronds that may not be in every clump but will be in the patch. They’ll be tall, packed with spores and will also have U-shaped grooves on the stem.
Once you  identify them, make sure you’re harvesting in a respectful way. Douglas Gralenski of White Mountain Forager pays farmers and landowners with river bottom land for commercial rights to pick on their property. 
If you find a patch you want to pick, he said, you may get a week or week and a half out of it since it doesn’t all ripen at once.
“When you get into a problem is if you go through and two days later somebody else comes through. If you harvest the same frond two or three times you can kill that plant,” Gralenski said. “You have to leave enough on so it can photosynthesize.”
 
Purchase
If sourcing your own fiddleheads is more of an adventure than you want, buy them from local farms and stores that source from foragers like Gralenski. 
Since he’s expanded from the North Country into southern areas and the seacoast, Gralenski has gone from picking 30 to 40 pounds per week to 150 to 200 pounds per week during a three-week period. 
“I do a lot of restaurant trade with your high-end restaurants and I have 30 different chefs,” he said. 
The Foundry, Wentworth by the Sea and the Concord Food Coop are among his customers. 
“It’s the next step from farm to market. Wild foods are in incredibly high demand,” he said. “There is a curiosity factor, and chefs that specialize in serving those kinds of foods can do amazing things with them.”
Barbour gets her fiddleheads from Lull Farm in Hollis but noted that plenty of local farms and even stores like Market Basket and Whole Foods may have them.
Cohen suggested buying a native plant from a local nursery to grow your own ostrich fern in a home garden. 
“Besides being tasty, they are very attractive plants,” he said. “Once the fronds are fully unrolled, they look like ostrich feathers — hence the name.”
 
Dine
The first thing to remember when cooking with fiddleheads is to blanch them before eating or incorporating into any recipe. Barbour said simply drop them into boiling salted water and then cook for three to five minutes. 
“You’ll notice that it almost looks like dirt … brown particles will surface and it’s not dirt, it’s part of the plant, so you’re getting rid of that,” she said. 
To finish, rinse them with cold water and submerge them in ice water to stop the cooking process.
“It’s important to cook them through before you eat them,” Cohen said. “[They] contain an enzyme called thiaminase.”
Thiaminase breaks down the body’s vitamin B1 so eating too many uncooked fiddleheads can lead to a deficiency. 
“You can eat a few in the raw, but if you do that in large amount that will upset your stomach,” Gralenski added.
The blanching also helps make them tender for whatever recipe you choose, like sauteed with butter and garlic or tossed in a garden salad. You can treat fiddleheads like you would asparagus (add them to sauteed pancetta or prosciutto), broccoli (add them to a pasta dish or stir fry), green beans (try them pan-fried with almonds) or as an addition to a soup, casserole or an omelet. 
“The nice thing about the fiddleheads is that they don’t fall apart when you’re cooking them so they can go into a lot of different dishes,” Barbour said. “But make sure you do that blanching first.” 





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