FIDDLEHEAD FERNS - VERMONT
Of ferns, the highest class of flowerless plants, there are eighty-one distinct species in Vermont.
—Vermont: A Guide to the Green Mountain State (WPA, 1937)
Fiddleheads are the tightly curled fronds of a young Ostrich fern (Matteuccia struthiopteris). Ostrich ferns grow wild from northeastern North America, across Europe, and into central Asia, but the fiddlehead is especially prized as a traditional delicacy in Vermont (where harvesting is a rite of spring). Until January of this year when a bill was introduced in the legislature naming kale the state vegetable of Vermont, the fiddlehead unofficially held the title.
From “Neighborhood Cooking,” published in 1993 by the East Barnard Community Club of East Barnard, Vermont, a recipe courtesy of Sabra Field:
Pick fiddleheads in early May on the sandy banks of a brook. Look for last year’s dry black “plume” to locate the new growth. Once the fronds begin to uncurl, they are “gone by.” You don’t need a knife, just use your fingers. Allow to dry a few hours. Shake in a lettuce basket to loosen brown outer “wrappers” and discard. Place in cottage cooker in large saucepan. Blanch and discard water. Add more water and steam until bright green and just tender. Toss with a little butter and lemon juice.
Other recommended preparations include triple blanching, then topping with cheese sauce. Under no circumstance should fiddleheads be eaten raw, as they can be quite tannic and bitter, even toxic, when undercooked.
They have been known to taste like wild asparagus with the crisp texture of a slightly undercooked brussel sprout. Some people from outside the region say they taste a bit like wet dirt.
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Tara Wray is the State Guide to Vermont. A photographer and award-winning documentary filmmaker (but mainly a mom of two-year-old identical twin sons), she is drawn to photography as a means to combat the otherwise general and fleeting nature of life. Follow her on Tumblr at Tara Wray Photography. Also, see her chapbook, “Barnard People, Vol. 1, Photographs of Vermonters.”