May 5, 2010

The Maine Ingredient: Spring means fun with fiddleheads

By ANNE MAHLE

What a gift Elliot Coleman has given us by sharing the oh-so-simple but genius mini-hoop house.

click image to enlarge

Bright, grassy, astringent, just-bitter-enough fiddleheads: The season just started, and it’ll be over very soon.

Elizabeth Poisson photo

Spring comes earlier to those gardens that have one or too rows covered with 3-foot-high, half-round hoops covered with two layers of plastic. But even if you aren't a gardening overachiever harvesting your lettuce, spinach and pea shoots already, someone surely is, and they are probably selling their efforts at the farmers' market, co-op or roadside stand.

Nature is also giving us with a spring that many have only dreamed of in Maine. I know, some of you are more worried than excited, but global warming aside (or whatever else is going on that we can't control), it's just so gorgeous! With that premature spring comes fiddleheads, which could be the emblematic vegetable of the state.

I didn't spend my childhood in Maine, so fiddleheads were new to me when I came here. I like to say I grew up here, but lest you think I was raised in Maine, I was actually in my early 20s when I chose to call it my home.

In any event, the first 10 times I tried fiddleheads, I had to really discuss with myself whether I liked them or not. I knew I SHOULD like them, because what self-respecting chef wouldn't like a wild-caught, only-once-a-year, specific-to-Maine delicacy?

Well, maybe me. In secret. It wasn't until I tried to place my finger on it several years ago, when the talk of this "new" taste on our tongue began to develop -- umami -- that I realized this was it.

Bright, grassy, astringent, slightly bitter fiddleheads benefit from an umami flavor. Umami has a full, rich, low-noted and rounded taste. Bacon, Parmesan, tamari (soy sauce), toasted nuts or seeds, sun-dried tomatoes and olives are all examples of umami, and they all pair well with fiddleheads -- softening and modulating some of the more powerful flavors. Of course an au gratin, cream sauce or pasta dish also work well, but this time of year, counting down days to the beach (and time in a bathing suit), most aren't interested in a cream sauce. Understood.

Peas and pea shoots are also a landmark sign of summer marching its way toward us. The soup could be just as easily served cold with the same creme fraiche and chive as a garnish.

FIDDLEHEADS WITH TAMARI AND TOASTED SESAME SEEDS

1 teaspoon minced garlic, about 1 clove

1 teaspoon grated ginger

2 tablespoons toasted sesame oil

4 cups fiddleheads, washed and ends trimmed

1 teaspoon tamari or soy sauce

1 tablespoon toasted sesame seeds

To toast sesame seeds, heat them in a small skillet over medium heat. Stir or shake in the pan frequently. Remove from heat when the seeds become golden brown, about 2 minutes.

Heat a large skillet over medium-high heat and add the oil. Add the garlic and ginger, and saute for 30 seconds to 1 minute. Add the fiddleheads and stir immediately. Saute for 1 to 2 minutes and add the tamari. Saute for another 1 to 2 minutes, or until the fiddleheads are tender but still bright green. Transfer to a platter and sprinkle with sesame seeds. Serve immediately.

Serves four to six.

LEMON PARMESAN FIDDLEHEADS

2 tablespoons butter

1 tablespoon minced garlic

4 cups fiddleheads

Freshly ground black pepper

1/2 teaspoon kosher salt

1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice

3 tablespoons freshly grated Parmesan cheese

Heat a large skillet over medium-high heat. Melt the butter and add the garlic. Saute for 30 seconds to 1 minute and then add the fiddleheads, salt and pepper. Saute for 7 to 10 minutes, or until the fiddleheads are tender but still bright green. Add lemon juice, sprinkle with Parmesan and serve.

(Continued on page 2)

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