Much like the ramps I wrote about last week, fiddlehead ferns are a fleeting spring delicacy. Found primarily in the wild, they are the fresh growth that appears at the top of a fern frond (only some varieties can be eaten. Make sure to check a reputable foraging guide before picking your own). If left alone, they develop into new leaves for the plant. However, careful foragers can trim a few off each plant during the early stages of their growth for a bright, fresh vegetable.
I find that fiddlehead ferns taste like a cross between asparagus and a green bean. A particular specialty of New England and the eastern coast of Canada, they've traditionally been steamed or boiled before being dressed with a sauce or vinaigrette.
As with any vegetable that has a condensed season, there's an instinctive urge to preserve it. Once cleaned and blanched, fiddlehead ferns become excellent pickles that allow you a chance to extend their season and enjoy their distinctive taste and texture a little while longer.
The finished pickles are good served with poached eggs and toast, with runny cheeses, or alongside any rich bit of meat or pate.
Before You Get Started
In years past, fiddlehead ferns were something that could only be obtained through foraging. However, these days they're a little easier to source. Check specialty stores and your local farmers' markets. I got mine at Iovine's, a produce vendor at Philadelphia's Reading Terminal Market.
As I noted above, not all fern tops are safe to eat. If you're foraging for yourself triple-check that you're getting the right kinds.
Prepare fiddleheads for pickling by washing them well, cleaning all the brown chaffy bits and simmering for 10-15 in boiling water.
Because they're either scarce or expensive, the recipe is scaled to make just one finished pint of pickles. If you find yourself falling in love with these pickles, I recommend splurging on a few more fiddleheads and putting up a few jars.
About the author: Marisa McClellan is a food writer, canning teacher, and dedicated pickler who lives in Center City Philadelphia. Find more of her jams, pickles and preserves (all cooked up in her 80-square-foot kitchen) at her blog, Food in Jars. Her first book, also called Food in Jars, will be published by Running Press in May 2012.