If anything tastes more like spring than fiddleheads, I don’t know what it is. Grassy (like asparagus), nutty (like artichokes), and earthy (like spinach), these tightly coiled tops of young ferns have a wonderful crispness when lightly cooked.
“The fiddlehead is the first vegetable of the season. We buy as much as we can in the spring,” St-Denis says. As a testament to their gourmet value, the first crop can reach $10 a pound at the market.
Ostrich fern fiddleheads are found in damp areas of the Great Lakes, the Appalachians, New England, Quebec and the Maritime Provinces forests. Wooded riverbanks are reliable and many foragers will canoe a section of a stream, beaching the boat when they find a wild garden of ferns.
The unwritten ethic among fiddlehead foragers is to take three violin tops. A fern produces five to nine fronds per growing season, so harvesting more than three can jeopardize the plant’s survival.
The measuring stick for fiddleheads is coinage. Pick a currency, but the head should be roughly the size of a silver dollar or a two-euro piece. Bigger than that and they start to toughen. By the end of the season, which is the end of May or early June depending on rainfall, the flavor becomes bitter, St-Denis says.
Fiddleheads, above, sauteed with butter.
The fern does present one culinary problem: it’s toxic. Though not nearly as bad as, say, fugu fish (which is lethal), raw fiddleheads can cause symptoms comparable to drinking water in a third-world country (nausea, vomiting, gastrointestinal pain). This is easily avoidable if the fiddleheads are boiled or steamed thoroughly. Of course, completely unrolled fern leaves should be avoided entirely.
“We boil it for about ten minutes,” St-Denis says. “It’s not a dish you want to serve al dente.” On the plant, fiddleheads are generally a pale green. By boiling the fiddleheads, not only is the toxicity neutralized, but the color becomes more vivid.
“They are extremely versatile but also powerful by themselves,” St-Denis says. Fiddleheads have the flavor of asparagus on performance-enhancing drugs. And while asparagus can become soggy in the pot, fiddleheads retain their texture: the shoots are firm and crunchy while the infant leaf buds almost dissolve in the mouth.
“You can make it with risotto but it’s best boiled then sautéed with butter and served on the side,” he advises. Match it with beef, pork or fish; the flavor complements all meats. Fiddleheads are also served on pasta with a touch of cream, parmesan and garlic. And, never straying too far from French influences, a splash of cognac is often added.
St-Denis learned his technique in France, but found his cooking voice and a group of like-minded chefs while working at Leméac in Montreal.