Thursday, May 3, 2012

Fiddlehead Facts and Some New Recipes

Fiddleheads are an elusive and ephemeral food. They only grow in wet areas for a short time in early spring. They are perhaps the first food the season. You'll find them in the woods, most commonly in Northern latitudes. Fiddleheads are a wild food, untouched by GMO technology. While there are many varieties of ferns, only some of them are edible, and it can be tricky to determine if you've stumbled upon the edible ones. In my area, the edible fiddleheads are usually the ostrich fern.

In my French-Canadian family, fiddleheads are called "fougère," which is just the French word for "fern." They are a food that I often heard about from my Memere or my father, but never experienced myself until adulthood, probably due to their scarcity. My Memere probably pickled them, a popular way to preserve food in a climate with a brief growing season (for information about safe preparation and several recipes, click here for the University of Maine Cooperative Extension Bulletin, Facts on Fiddleheads -- you'll find many recipes for fiddlehead pickles). Now, thanks to Whole Foods and the expansion of artisan and specialty foods, I can find them readily in my favorite market from about the middle of April through May (even into June, sometimes). I've picked them myself, but only once while on a trip, not conveniently near my home. I've looked for them at Weir Hill but I haven't found them -- there are lots of ferns, but not the right ones, apparently.

The wild fiddlehead continues to elude me.

So, I do what I can -- I buy them at Whole Foods and research them on the Internet. Imagine my surprise when I discovered that the village, Tidal Head, in New Brunswick -- the province my family hails from -- is touted as the "Fiddlehead Capital of the World." This gives me a small feeling of pride, even though I'm not from Tidal Head (and it's not French, either).

Preparing fiddleheads takes a little bit of time because they must be washed well to remove the papery covering that sometimes clings to the buds and steamed or boiled to remove any "microflora or fauna" that may be bound by the tightly curled fronds (these substances can cause illness, so do be careful). Most of the recipes I've seen treat fiddleheads rather gently after that; they receive a saute in a butter sauce and that's usually about it.Around here, their flavor is considered "delicate." They are sometimes paired with mushrooms or other vegetables with pasta or rice. Below, I've given a recipe for a delicious fiddlehead omelet with mushrooms.

However, fiddleheads are not just a North American delicacy. According to the Wikipedia page* on fiddleheads, they are also used in Asian cuisine, though they may not be the same variety that we have here. In Indonesia, fiddleheads are treated not so gently as in Canada, paired with such ingredients as chili pepper, galangal, lemongrass, and tumeric leaves. I love Asian food, so I was quite pleasantly surprised to learn that fiddleheads had a whole other life with different seasonings and preparations. For instance, in Korea, fiddleheads are used in one of my favorite meals, bibimbap. When I read that, I knew I had to try my own version (which came out delicious, btw):

In addition, fiddleheads are roasted in Japan (it is believed that this technique neutralizes toxins in the vegetable). I think I'm going to try roasting some soon. I'm thinking of adding some pepitas and then seasoning the whole thing with dried miso. I'd also like to try the Indonesian set of spices listed above.

Even India cooks with fiddleheads, which are mixed with cheese. I'm imagining something like a palak paneer except with fiddleheads. Mmmm.

Here are a couple more fiddlehead recipes to add to the melange. The first is a simple omelet with fiddleheads and mushrooms and the second is my recipe for a fiddlehead bibimbap. Enjoy them while you can!

Fiddlehead Omelet
(recipe makes 1 omelet)

1. Heat 1 tbs. oil or butter in a small fry pan.
2. Add 3 or 4 thinly sliced mushrooms (your choice). Brown.
3. Meanwhile, gently whisk 2 eggs in a bowl.
4. Add 1 oz. washed and prepared fiddleheads to the pan and cook them until they also get a little color.
5. Add sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste.
6. Add the eggs, lowering the temperature. Swirl the pan to distribute the eggs. As the edges cook, drag your fork or spatula from the edge toward the center, letting the egg mixture run to fill in the space. Do this until most of the runny egg has started to solidify.
7. Add a couple dollops of cottage cheese. Fold the omelet over and cover. Turn off the heat and let sit for about 5 minutes to give the center a chance to finish cooking gently. Enjoy.
Fiddlehead omelet with radishes and almond-stuffed dates on the side.

Fiddlehead Bibimbap
(recipes serves 3-4)
I can't say this is a very traditional recipe, but it tastes like bibimbap, so that's all that matters to me!

1. Prepare ahead of time: Preheat oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit. Make sure you have 2 cups of precooked rice. Very lightly grease bottom and sides of a heavy, round deep baking dish with coconut oil. Set up a steamer for some of the vegetables.
2. Marinate 2 oz. of tofu, cut into small cubes or strips, with 1 tsp. sriracha, a few shakes each of soy sauce and toasted seasame oil. Set aside.
3. When the water in the steamer is boiling, add 1 cup thinly sliced purple kale. Steam for 1-2 minutes until wilted. Season with soy sauce or Bragg's, black pepper and a dash of sesame oil. Set aside.
4. Add 1/2 cup fiddleheads to the steamer and cook until everything else is ready, about 10 minutes.
5. Heat 1 tbs. of coconut oil in a wok or frying pan. Add 1-2 cloves of minced garlic and cook on medium-low heat. Do not allow to smoke or turn brown.
6. Add to the wok, 4 oz. or 1/2 cup of thinly sliced shiitake mushrooms and cook until lightly brown. Season lightly with sea salt, black pepper and sesame oil. Set aside.
7. Add to the wok, 1 cup shredded carrots and cook lightly, just until slightly softened. Remove and set aside, seasoning lightly as above. (Use your own intuition on the seasoning of each ingredient)
8. Fry the marinated tofu, same as above. When heated through with just a little bit of brown, remove and set aside.
9. At this point, your wok might need a bit more oil. Add two eggs and cook lightly, sunnyside up. Don't let the egg get too cooked.
10. After all that, you're ready to assemble for the oven. First, pour the rice into the prepared baking dish. Next, place each vegetable ingredient in its own "nook" on top of the rice:
Fiddlehead bibimbap, ready for the oven. In the version seen here, I cooked the egg in the oven, but I like it better fried first.

11. Place the eggs in the middle. Garnish with 1-2 tbs. chopped cilantro, 1 tbs. seasame seeds and a dash of sesame oil to moisten the top. Add a dash of Bragg's or soy sauce if you want.
12. Cook in the oven for about 20 uncovered, and then cover, turn off the heat and let sit in the hot oven for another 5-10. The rice should stick a little to the pan and get a little crispy.
13. To eat, pour on more sriracha (how much depends on how much you like heat. If you're new to this spicy paste, start with a little, and you can always add more) and mix all the ingredients, breaking the egg yolks, to form a delicious, spicy sauce. Spoon out into separate bowls.
Fiddlehead Bibimbap

* So, yeah, Wikipedia. There were no references for the details concerning Asian cuisine, so let's just "take it all with a grain of salt" until I can verify. I did find a Korean woman's food blog that gave a recipe for bibimbap with "fougere" so I believe that the information is most likely accurate.

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