The name alone sounds like some sort of Old English insult (or perhaps the name of a cartoon character who’s the butt of more than a few jokes). If you’ve ever stumbled upon them in the grocery store or at the greenmarket, you’ve probably remarked at how alien they look surrounded by other produce. Fiddleheads are a strange beast all around, so what the heck are they?
First things first, a fiddlehead is essentially a baby fern. As a fern grows in the spring, new fronds appear at the base, resembling petite bright green coils. They’re shape is often compared to the ornate end of a violin or the curved top of a shepherd’s staff.
Left alone, they’ll gradually uncurl into fully formed fronds — but we won’t be leaving them alone. Nay, to enjoy the taste of a fiddlehead, curious eaters must slice them off the plant while they’re still in this young, coiled phase. That’s why the perfect time to harvest the smallish spirals is from late March through June, at the very latest. Wait any longer, and they’ll have grown too much.
Finding fiddleheads also requires a good bit of luck. Most are not farmed, but rather foraged. Should you try it out for yourself, the general rule amongst fern-lovers is to only take three fronds per plant, leaving behind a healthy fern for seasons to come.
The taste and texture of the plant is similar to asparagus with hints of bitterness and a slightly nutty flavor. They’re also packed with the healthy stuff the doc keeps telling us to eat: omega 3 fatty acids, omega 6 (!) fatty acids, fiber, potassium and iron. Hey, maybe Popeye should give ferns a shot?
The most popular ways to cooking fiddleheads are boiling and steaming. Both methods cut down on the plant’s bitterness and necessarily eliminate any toxins that naturally occur inside. Afterward, they can be eaten sautéed in butter, lightly grilled, simmered in a soup, embedded in risotto, topped with hollandaise or anywhere else your imagination takes you. One of our favorite uses our there has to be in the insanely craveable Korean bibimbap. Stems from a variety of fern called the “bracken” are commonly used in the dish.
If you’re looking to crunch on a few stateside, the best local rendition of fiddleheads we’ve found is over at Marco's in Prospect Heights. Over at 295 Flatbush Avenue (between St. Marks and Prospect) they’re serving them wood-grilled with a light mix of seasonal spring herbs and scorzonera, an also-obscure root vegetable.
For the ambitious, we’ve also seen them for sale at local farmers markets and certain specialty grocery stores around the city, like Boerum Hill’s Brooklyn Fare. We recommend calling ahead before embarking on any fiddlehead mission, though. These beauties will be gone from the shelves quicker than you can say “summer Fridays.”