I didn't know that fiddleheads weren't common everywhere until a few years ago. I just assumed that everyone picked fiddleheads along riverbanks in spring and that it was normal for other families to eat with every May-time meal along with my own.
Apparently, not true! Some time ago (I'm going to say a few years, because that covers a wide range), I found out that fiddleheads grow primarily in New England. While they make appearances in other areas, I can say (with at least some hearty confidence) that Mainers have known fiddleheads since they could start differentiating between vegetables that were really cool-looking and ones that weren't (so much).
Fiddleheads are little baby ferns. Fiddlehead-picking season is extremely short and pickers have to time their harvest perfectly. It's not uncommon for pickers to check back at their favorite harvesting spots multiple times throughout the end of the April and early May to find out whether they've come up yet.
Fiddleheads can be found on riverbanks. They seem to be especially prevalent in areas that had extensive flooding over the last couple of months. After the flood waters have retreated, the fern/fiddlehead's lifecycle begins. (I have no botanical confirmation of this; I'm just off-the-cuffing and makin' assumptions).
After the ferns germinate and start growing up, they form a tight spiral on top of their stalk. The stalks should be about an inch or two off the ground when harvested. The stalks can grow longer and be perfectly fine for eating; the danger, however, is in the spiral. Once that fern frond starts to uncurl, the fiddlehead simply becomes a riverside fern and is not edible.
Because the harvesting season is so short, fiddleheads are a delicacy. Local pickers sit on their tailgates and sell bags of fiddleheads on the side of the road. They also sell them for a short time in our local grocery store.
I've picked fiddleheads for many years, but with all the raised-bed mayhem going on around here, I missed the harvesting window. I was able to get some from my sister though, who scored them from a manager at a gas station that picked them over the last weekend (yes, it sounds like a drug deal just happened, but fiddleheads have been known to be addicting, so...)
Mr. UpCountry doesn't like fiddleheads that much and my sister was able to give me about three pounds. I figured, since I'm probably not going to eat three pounds of fiddleheads in the next week, I should freeze some!
To freeze fiddleheads:
1. Clean them first! They're likely going to have some brown, papery stuff going on around the spiral. I don't know what it is, but I don't want to eat it. So I rub that off, snap off the ends of the stalks (that have become brown since being picked), and remove any other river-debris under cold water.
While you're cleaning your fiddleheads, set a nice big pot of water on to boil.
2. Once the fiddleheads have been cleaned and your water is at a rolling boil, add the fiddleheads to the pot. Wait until the water has returned to a boil and set your timer to 2 minutes. In these 2 minutes, the fiddleheads will remarkably "blanch," which is a fun word which means "to be boiled" (at least to me).
I apologize for the wonky coloring on this photo, but I had to turn my kitchen light on - it's too dark in that corner. Grr..
While the fiddleheads are "blanching," (what is blanching?!?), prepare an ice bath. Simply fill a bowl of water half with cold water and half with ice. Voila! The only bath I never want to lower myself into!
3. After two minutes of blanching time, put the fiddleheads into the ice bath and let them chill out for two minutes.
Meanwhile, I looked up what blanching is. It means to boil for a time and then cool off. Go figure.
4. After two minutes of chilling out, dry the fiddleheads as much as possible (what I would do for a salad spinner), put them in a freezer bag (don't forget to label it! Ever. Because then you wouldn't know stuff about it that you might want to know later), and get/suck as much air out it as possible. Stick it in your freezer and rest assured that it will make magical cold things happen to your fiddleheads.
5. When you're ready to eat them, boil the already-cleaned fiddleheads for 15 minutes. They can also be steamed for 10-12. Please follow these cooking times religiously, as some fiddlehead-eaters have become ill from eating raw or undercooked fiddleheads. Take food safety seriously, yo!
My favorite way to prepare fiddleheads is to serve them with chopped, crisp bacon (because, why not?) and a tab of butter (because saturated fats are my best friend).
I can't really describe what they taste like. Ummmm... broccoli-ish? Green-bean-ish? It's impossible. If you're in New England, seek some out at local restaurants this time of year. If you're not, commit to a road-trip and come visit Maine. We'll feed you.