Fiddleheads are the first vegetable that I preserve every year. The easiest way to explain fiddleheads to those who have never encountered them before is that they are, basically, baby ferns, still curled and coiled up into small, tightly wound balls. We’re lucky enough to have a small patch less than 100 yards from our house, but they tend to grow in moist, well-shaded areas in the Northeast (I’ve found them in both Maine and Vermont). Having a very short season, fiddleheads usually emerge from the ground at just about the time that leaves start to unfurl from their buds. We’ve found that we have to be particularly careful because there is such a short window between edible fiddleheads and nearly mature ferns (their fronds spreading up toward the sky).
The fiddleheads we eat in Northern Maine come from the Ostrich Fern (Matteuccia struthiopteris). They are identifiable by a brown, tissue-paper-like membrane that usually covers the tight spiral of the fiddlehead. They are often found in small clumps, low to the ground.
To cook fresh fiddleheads , I clean them (as described below), steam them for 10 – 12 minutes and serve them with butter (for Jason) or just a bit of salt/vinegar for me.
To preserve fiddleheads, I usually begin by submersing them in cold water for at least an hour. Once this is complete, I use a wire mesh strainer under the faucet to wash away the papery-liners before separating the clean fiddleheads from those that haven’t been cleaned yet. If I was using them fresh, I would stop at this point and cook them; however, to preserve them, I follow the steps outlined below.
While I am cleaning the fiddleheads, I heat a large pot of water on the stove (my jam pot).
Once all of the fiddleheads are clean, I submerse them in boiling water for one minute to blanch before placing them immediately into ice cold water (back in the sink). Once they are cold to the touch (when removed from the water), I place towels on cookie sheets and spread the fiddleheads on the towels, gently rolling the towels into logs and leaving them for about fifteen minutes to absorb the water from the fiddleheads.
To use the fiddleheads, I simply remove a bag from the freezer, pour the correct amount into a vegetable steamer and steam the fiddleheads until tender (about 10 – 15 minutes).