March 11, 2010

Fiddlehead fever: Catch it while you can

— Fiddlehead ferns are the first green vegetable of spring and thus are one of Maine's best loved seasonal harbingers. The fact that they are gathered by foragers somehow only adds to their mystique.

So named because they resemble the carved wood on a violin, fiddleheads are the unfurled shoots of the ostrich fern. Their flavor is like a walk in damp, mossy, primeval woods (sometimes described as a cross between asparagus and morel mushrooms), and their texture has an appealing chew. Plus, they look adorable!

They're fun to pick if you go out with a knowledgeable forager -- but if you don't know what you're doing, let the pros do the plucking. It's only the ostrich fern that produces an edible fiddlehead.

SAUTÉ OF FIDDLEHEADS, SUGAR SNAPS AND BABY CARROTS

In this recipe, fiddleheads are combined with two other spring vegetables to create a gorgeous, colorful mélange.

1/2 pound fiddlehead ferns

1/2 pound baby carrots (see note)

1/2 pound sugar snap peas, stems and strings removed

2 tablespoons unsalted butter

1/2 teaspoon sugar

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Fill a sink full of cold water, immerse fiddleheads in the water, and rub off any papery brown membrane. Trim off the dark ends.

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil and have a bowl of ice water ready. Add fiddleheads and cook uncovered at a rapid boil until just tender, 4 to 5 minutes. Remove with a slotted spoon to ice water to cool and set color. When cool, lift out and drain in a colander.

Bring another pot of salted water to a boil and have another bowl of ice water at the ready. Add carrots and cook until tender, about 8 minutes. Add snap peas and cook for 30 to 60 seconds, until they turn bright green. Remove both vegetables with a slotted spoon and transfer to the ice water. (All vegetables can be prepared up to 6 hours ahead to this point. Drain on paper towels, cover, and refrigerate.)

In a large skillet, melt the butter. Add the three vegetables, sprinkle with the sugar and toss over medium-high heat, stirring frequently, until heated through, 2 to 3 minutes. Season with salt and pepper to taste, and serve.

Serves six.

Note: Peeled baby carrots in bags are just fine, but if you should come across local young carrots, so much the better. If their pretty green stems are still attached, leave them on, but trim down to about ½-inch.

BLANCHED FIDDLEHEADS WITH LEMONY MAYO DIPPING SAUCE

This simple fiddlehead preparation is one of my favorite ways to serve the sweet little things.

About 1/2 pound fiddlehead ferns

1/2 cup prepared mayonnaise

1 teaspoon grated lemon zest

2 tablespoons lemon juice

2 tablespoons finely minced scallions, white and green parts

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Fill a sink full of cold water, immerse fiddleheads in the water, and rub off any papery brown membrane. Trim off the dark ends.

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil and have a bowl of ice water ready. Add fiddleheads and cook uncovered at a rapid boil until just tender, 4 to 5 minutes. Remove with a slotted spoon to ice water to cool and set color. When cool, lift out and drain in a colander. Wrap in paper towels, place in a plastic bag, and refrigerate for at least 1 hour.

In a small bowl, whisk together the mayonnaise, lemon zest, lemon juice, and scallions. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

Serve blanched fiddleheads with the dipping sauce alongside. Makes four to six hors d'oeuvres servings.

OTHER SUGGESTIONS:

n Cook in a large pot of boiling salted water as above. Drain and toss hot fiddleheads with unsalted butter and snipped chives.

n Cook and chill as above. Drizzle with a light vinaigrette and serve on a bed of butter lettuce.

n For a side dish serving four, blanch 1 pound fiddleheads as above, but do not chill. Chop 3 bacon slices and cook over low heat until crisp, about 10 minutes. Drain on paper towels. Pour off all but 2 tablespoons bacon fat, add 1 to 2 tablespoons olive oil and 1 large clove minced garlic and cook over medium heat 1 minute. Add blanched fiddleheads, toss until heated through. Season with pepper and sprinkle with chopped bacon.

Brooke Dojny is author or co-author of more than a dozen cookbooks, most recently ''The New England Clam Shack Cookbook'' (Storey 2008). She lives on the Blue Hill peninsula.

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