Lemon-Garlic Fiddlehead Ferns

Monday, May 23, 2011

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Hiking in the woods in the spring I have found myself fascinated by the furled spiral shoots of the young ferns. From that spiral they unfurl into the fronds of a fern that is so ubiquitous across North American forests. But these tiny spirals are found only for a short period of time in the spring, just a few weeks. The spiral, which has the golden ratio, is itself quite remarkable as it is found in nature in things like snail shells and sea shells. Remarkable further still that all of these things are (mostly) edible.

Of the fact that the furled fronds of the fern, or fiddleheads (called that since they resemble the scroll of the violin), are edible, my husband informed me on one of our hikes. And then, to my utmost glee, we found them in our local Whole Foods. Since they are only available for a few short weeks, I knew no time must be lost and so I grabbed a handful and promptly shoved them in the basket.

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When cooked, fiddleheads taste earthy, slightly bitter, which can be overcome with liberal additions of lemon juice. The taste resembles asparagus the most.

Like asparagus, fiddleheads can easily be overcooked. I find that the best cooking time for both asparagus and fiddleheads is that short window of time, when the cells just begin to break down, softening the vegetable ever so slightly but during which the crisp texture still lingers. This can often be told by the color which begins to change from a dusty green, to a more vivid, bright green. If they turn swamp greenish-brown, they've been successfully overcooked. Although preferences differ, and some prefer the softer version, I find that the vegetable loses both its flavor and spectacular texture and becomes a soft, brown, fibrous mess. Another reason why the crunchier version is sometimes preferred is because most of the nutrients are still retained but they break down when the vegetable is fully cooked.

This recipe has been adapted from my mother-in-law's way of preparing fiddleheads. The more traditional French way requires butter but I substituted with olive oil.

Lemon-Garlic Fiddlehead Ferns
(Serves 2)

You will need:
2 tbsp olive oil
1 clove garlic, minced
1 lb fiddleheads, ends trimmed, brown leaves removed
1/4 tsp sea salt
ground pepper, to taste
1 tbsp freshly squeezed lemon juice

Directions:
Heat olive oil in a large pan on medium heat. Add garlic and sauté until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Add fiddleheads, mixing everything together with a wooden spoon. Season with salt and pepper. Cook covered, until fiddleheads are tender crisp, about 6-7 minutes, stirring occasionally. Remove lid, add lemon juice and cook, stirring, about 30 seconds more. Remove from heat and serve.

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