Fiddleheads are the coiled tips of young fern fronds gathered from
the ostrich fern, and their taste has been described as a cross between
asparagus, woody mushrooms, green beans and artichokes. The name
“fiddlehead” refers to any unfurled fern, not to a particular variety,
because of their resemblance to the scroll of a violin (or fiddle).
If you are foraging for them yourself, be advised that a few ferns
are poisonous, so check with someone who is knowledgeable before
picking or eating them. Fiddleheads taste best when they are very
young, and don’t be tempted to eat any more than a few at a time,
because of risks that they are carcinogenic.
So with all these caveats, why bother? Because fiddleheads are like
the rare Stradivarius violin, in terms of their short season and
delicacy of experience. Their bright green color and unusual shape also
add visual interest to your plate.
They are found in woods in patches where there is abundant sunshine.
The alternative is to purchase them from a specialty produce dealer,
from a vendor or at the farmers’ market. Actually, you really don’t
have to go too far to find them. Wegmans in DeWitt is selling
fiddleheads, at $9.99 per pound. Some people can even find them growing
wild every year in Central New York’s back yards.
Fiddleheads usually appear in late April or early May, and are found
throughout the Eastern half of the United States, ranging from as far
south as Virginia and north to Canada. But the recent, unusual,
80-degree temperatures in Central New York have moved things up a
little earlier. Now that they’re here, choose fiddleheads that are
small, bright jade green, springy and firm, with no sign of softness,
yellowing or fuzziness. They only last about two weeks, after which
they unfurl into graceful greenery that then can beautify a bouquet of
To prepare, trim the base of each fiddlehead, leaving only a small
tail protruding beyond the curled section, then rub off any brown
scales with your hands and rinse well. Boil in salted water 3 to 5
minutes. A pinch of baking soda may be added to the cooking water to
soften them and brighten their color. They may also be steamed or
sauteed. Fiddleheads are a good source of vitamins A and C.
Once they have been boiled or steamed, simply saute them with butter
and chopped, fresh herbs. When cool and just before serving, toss with
a mild vinaigrette, for a succulent salad. For something a little more
substantial, top them with crisp bacon, melted Cheddar cheese and then
pile onto a toasted English muffin. Or, treat fiddleheads like
asparagus: drizzle with lemon butter, cheese sauce or hollandaise, or
mix with soy sauce and sesame seeds.
They also pair well with asparagus, butter, lemon, morel mushrooms, new potatoes, salmon and watercress.
Spring break: The not-around-long vegetables, fiddlehead
ferns and ramps (above), provide culinary treats you can’t enjoy during
any other season. MICHAEL DAVIS PHOTOS
Ramps have a longer season than fiddleheads, and grow in abundance
from late April through May. Ramps are simply wild onions or leeks and
combine the tastes of the mild-tasting leek, stronger flavor of a
yellow onion and more robust garlic. They come with a scallion-like
bulb attached with beautiful flat, broad leaves. And don’t worry about
the strong garlic-like odor; it abates when the ramps are cooked.
Because they are fragile and wilt quickly, it is vital that you
prepare them as soon as you get them home. The name comes from “rams”
or “ramson,” an Elizabethan dialect for wild garlic. They are
celebrated every April in Richwood, W.Va., during a Feast of the Ramson.
Their pungent flavor works well to heighten the flavor of soups and
egg dishes, and may be used in any recipe calling for scallions or
leeks. They are especially good with scrambled eggs or fried with
potatoes. Ramps may also be frozen; separate bulbs from the leaves.
Chop bulbs and leaves separately. Air-dry them for a few hours, then
freeze them in an airtight container to have on hand as a seasoning. Or
chop them, mix with butter and shape into logs before freezing.
Look for them in open fields or at the farmers’ market. You can also find them at Wegmans in DeWitt, for $12.99 per pound.
The same fungus species as the truffle, and are noted for their
earthy and nutty flavor. Morels are found near ash trees, old stone
walls, shady orchards or moist and grassy meadowlands. They may appear
on sunny days just after a May rainstorm. A morel’s spongy,
honeycombed, cone-shape cap ranges in size from 2 to 4 inches high and
in color from a rich tan to an extremely dark brown. The darker the
color, the stronger the flavor.
Morels can appear as early as April and may last through June. While
foraging for morels may be a fun Saturday-morning family excursion, you
must know exactly what to pick since many mushroom varieties are
poisonous. Morels have yet to make their entrance locally this season,
but keep an eye for them at the farmers’ market or online. And they can
be pricey, so be warned.
These fungi produce a rich, nutlike flavor and woodsy fragrance, and
are also available canned or dried. Reconstitute them by soaking in
water for a short time, then you can use their earthy flavor
If you do happen to find fresh ones, you need only buy a few to
enhance a sauce for an elegant meal. They should be stored with cool
air circulating around them, placed on a tray in a single layer,
covered with a damp paper towel and refrigerated. Before using them
wipe with a damp paper towel to remove any grittiness. If especially
dirty, rinse quickly with cold water and dry thoroughly, but unlike the
dried kind, do not soak because they absorb water and will become
mushy. Also clear the stems of any grit.
You will find fiddleheads, ramps and morels on many upscale New York
City menus, but they are hard to come by locally. One exception is
Joelle’s French Bistro, 4423 S. State St. Road (Route 321), Skaneateles
(685-3063), owned and operated by Alain Castel and Joelle Mollinger.
Chef Mollinger currently has a fresh batch of fiddleheads and ramps
ready for her creative touch. “I saute the fiddleheads with garlic and
parsley and pair them with veal or salmon,” she says. As for ramps, she
prepares them as tempura, and serves them as a punchy and crunchy taste
treat during the bistro’s happy hour. The French chef says they also
taste great grilled, then topped with goat cheese. When the morels
finally arrive, Mollinger will incorporate them into choice cream
sauces to heighten the flavor of her many creative dishes.