Monday, April 19, 2010

Feasting on Fiddleheads

Today’s post is more culinary than literary, but the original inspiration was literary. About 20 years ago, I read a mystery novel set somewhere in New England (Vermont?) that introduced me to fiddlehead ferns. A springtime delicacy that featured more prominently than clues in the woods of the novel, they seemed deliciously unusual and hopelessly out of reach. I was amazed and delighted beyond words when they appeared – very briefly – at a local grocery store a short time later. Not sure how to prepare them – the novel hadn’t gone into great detail about that – I sautéed them with garlic in butter and they were every bit as delicious as the novel had made them sound.

The following Christmas, Nancy and John DeCherney, authors of The Fiddlehead Cookbook, appeared at a local book signing. They were more amazed than I had been that I was actually able to find fiddlehead ferns locally. Their book is based on recipes from The Fiddlehead Restaurant and Bakery in Juneau, Alaska, where the ferns are readily available during their brief season in April and May. When they signed my copy of their book, they wrote, “Think asparagus, read Fiddlehead,” advice that I have followed as often as possible since then.

Much has changed in the intervening years. For one thing, there were no blogs back then, and for another, fiddlehead ferns have now been “discovered” by foodies everywhere and are, while not exactly common, much less rare than they were in those days, appearing on restaurant menus and in some grocery stores and regional markets like the Reading Terminal Market in Philadelphia. Their season is extremely brief, however, so you have to grab them while you can, a fact that motivates this post: I found fiddleheads yesterday at my local Whole Foods, and Earthy Delights just sent me an e-mail announcement that the little green morsels are now available on-line from them.

Delicious as they are sautéed in garlic and butter, there is a lot more you can do with them, and I have included a recipe at the end of this post, based in part on the ingredients pairings listed in The Flavor Bible, by Karen Page and Andrew Dorenburg. Their fiddlehead fern entry notes that fiddleheads should always be cooked, either blanched, boiled, sautéed or steamed. (I just tasted one raw and found the flavor to be unpleasantly grassy.) In addition, they recommend about 40 compatible ingredients, putting wild mushrooms at the top of their list. Other recommended pairings include bacon, basil, cipollini onions, Parmesan cheese, pasta, and sweet butter. Having an excellent local Italian specialty store nearby, my recipe uses their pancetta instead of bacon and a pound of their fresh fettuccine.

The authors of The Flavor Bible have also written What to Drink with What You Eat, giving recommended food pairings with wines and other beverages. Although they don’t list fiddlehead ferns, they do give an extensive list of beverage pairings for asparagus. Remembering the DeCherney’s advice, I selected Page and Dorenburg’s most highly recommended asparagus wine, a dry Sauvignon Blanc, especially one from New Zeland. This seems a particularly appropriate choice in view of what Alan Davidson says in his entry on ferns in The Penguin Companion to Food, that “New Zealand is sometimes called `the land of ferns’.” When I prepared the recipe below for dinner last night, I paired it with a 2009 Mud House Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc, based on a recommendation from my favorite local wine store.

Finally, before I give the recipe, I will close with a question. In the 20 or so years since I read the mystery novel that first introduced me to the joys of the fiddlehead fern, I have most regrettably lost both the book and its identity: does anyone out there know what it might have been?

Fettuccine with Fiddlehead Ferns and Fresh Mushrooms


1 lb. fresh fettuccine 2 tbs. unsalted butter
½ lb. fiddlehead ferns 2 tbs. olive oil
3 cipollini onions 2 tbs. fresh basil, chopped
4 oz. pancetta ½ tsp. coarse sea salt
2 oz. fresh mushrooms ¼ tsp. fresh black pepper
2 cloves garlic Parmigiano-Reggiano, fresh grated

To prepare:

Rinse fiddlehead ferns well, trim off bottom ends, and steam for 5 minutes. Rinse under cold water and set aside.

Cut pancetta into small cubes and brown in a skillet over medium heat. Remove with a slotted spoon and transfer to paper towels to drain.

Chop cipollini onions and garlic. Pour off all but 1 tbs. fat from the pancetta, add butter and olive oil, and sauté onions until translucent. Add garlic, fiddlehead ferns, and mushrooms and sauté two minutes. Add pancetta and keep warm over low heat until the pasta is done.

Cook fettuccine in a pot of salted water with a small amount of olive oil until al dente. Drain and put back into the pot. Toss with ingredients from skillet, basil, Parmigiano-Reggiano, and a drizzle of olive oil.

Serve immediately.