Foraging Tender Fiddlehead Ferns

Langdon Cook scavenges the forest for spring’s versatile culinary offering, fiddleheads.

Few foods look more fetching on the plate than fiddleheads, those vibrant green coils that emerge in moist forests each spring. Aptly named, a fiddlehead is the new growth of a fern, with a curled spiral that resembles the scroll on a violin’s neck.

Fiddleheads begin to emerge in March or April in the Seattle area and are abundant by early May (although at higher elevations, you can continue to harvest fiddleheads well into late spring).

So how do they taste? Like a cross between asparagus and artichoke, some will tell you, with a distinctly wild edge that can verge on bitterness. The fiddlehead is definitely not a tame vegetable, but for those who enjoy adventurous tastes and a pilgrimage to the farmers market—or better yet, to a prized lady fern patch in search of this fleeting delicacy, it is well worth the effort.

The best way to forage fiddleheads is to look for the fully leafed-out ferns at the height of summer, when they’re easiest to identify. Lady ferns, with their feathery fronds, are common throughout the Puget Sound region—beside streams and in damp woodlands. They’re a regular sight in city parks and adorn many an urban garden. When you find a patch, note the location and then return in spring for the young fiddleheads. Though the rootstock will regenerate new shoots, I try to limit the number I harvest from each clump, taking no more than a third of the young fiddleheads.

Back at home, the bounty requires cleaning. Immerse the fiddleheads in water and, using thumb and forefinger, rub off the papery sheath that envelops the fiddlehead. Now they’re ready for cooking. I’ll usually blanch my fiddleheads for a minute or two in boiling water before sautéing in butter, stir-frying or roasting.

Try fiddleheads in a quick Szechuan-style stir-fry, or tossed with pasta, lemon, butter and Parmesan. Pickling is another fine way to enjoy the crunch and unique taste of these spring treats year-round.

Lang's Recipe for Dry-Fried Fiddleheads

One of my favorite Sichuanese dishes—a signature preparation known to even casual admirers of the spicy cuisine from southwestern China—is Dry-fried String Beans. Using fiddleheads in place of string beans, I made a similar dish the other night to accompany Kung Pao Chicken. And it turned out even better than expected.

Prep the fiddleheads carefully. Soak in water a few minutes before rubbing off the papery sheaf with your fingers. Blanche in salted boiling water for a minute, then thoroughly dry with paper towels. Even a tiny amount of moisture can pop and sizzle dangerously in a hot wok.

1 lb fiddleheads, cleaned
1/4 lb ground pork
1/3 cup peanut oil
1 tbsp garlic, diced
1 tbsp ginger, diced
10 dried red chili peppers
1/4 tsp Sichuan peppercorns, ground
2 tbsp Sichuan preserved vegetable, chopped
3 scallion bulbs, chopped
2 tsp Chinese rice wine (or dry sherry)
1 tbsp chili bean sauce
1/2 tsp sesame oil
1/2 tsp dark soy sauce
1 tsp sugar
1/4 tsp salt, or more to taste

1. Combine rice wine, chili bean sauce, sesame oil, dark soy sauce, and sugar in small bowl to make sauce. Set aside.

2. Blanche fiddleheads for 1 minute in boiling, well-salted water. Remove and dry thoroughly with paper towels.

3. Heat oil in wok until nearly smoking, then add fiddleheads and stir-fry for a few minutes until beginning to blister. Remove to paper towels.

4. Pour off all but a tablespoon of oil and return to heat. Add garlic, ginger, chopped scallion bulbs, red chili peppers, preserved vegetable, and Sichuan peppercorns. Cook a minute until fragrant, then add ground pork. Stir-fry together until pork is browned. Return fiddleheads to wok, add reserved sauce, and stir-fry another minute to coat.

5. Sprinkle with salt and serve.