Fiddlehead ferns with mint, shallot and cracked almonds
Wild and reliable. That's how my wife, Joy, described the main ingredient of this recipe as she was waiting for a taste. She was thinking about the Pacific Northwest and Northern California farmers whose fields are underwater. Stretches of farmland awaiting the warmer temperatures and drier days that April usually brings. Wild foods like fiddlehead ferns, wild onions, morel mushrooms, nettles and sheep sorrel, on the other hand, are less affected by heavy rain and unexpected weather. These ingredients thrive outside of and despite the surprises nature springs on farmers with what seems like cruel frequency. Wild, foraged foods arrive on schedule--reliably--so long as they aren't covered in a thick blanket of snow.
The western sword fern is the most common fern harvested in the Pacific Northwest. Foraging the new growth of young ferns happens in early spring, as the vibrant light green tips begin to curl. Take a small bite of one before purchasing fiddleheads. They should be firm, crunchy, and relatively clean and smooth. Avoid scarring or signs of texture on the stem, which indicate the presence of mucilage, a naturally occurring substance that causes the same thickening and sliminess found in okra. The fiddleheads in the photo below are an example of the quality I expect from Rick, of Rick's Wild Mushrooms, the forager from whom I purchased them and who has meticulous standards. (The long stem shown in the photo of raw fiddleheads below has not been cleaned.)
Remove the brownish, lighter colored end of the stem and soak the fiddleheads in cold water for a few minutes, repeating as needed to remove forest debris. Dry the clean fiddleheads in a salad spinner before cooking. In a restaurant, I would have my cooks blanch the fern tops prior to service, to ensure that the fiddleheads had begun to soften before they were added to a finished dish. At home, I use my preferred cooking method: sautéing in smoking hot cast iron pan. The tips of the fern color lightly, and the whole softens in a few minutes. Sometimes I steam them, for eating cold or pickling. The pickling liquid in the Seared Scallop recipe is a good one to try.
When building a flavor profile around fiddleheads, "less is more" is a good general rule. I took a little risk this time, adding almonds, but after eating the finished dish, I found them to be pleasantly complementary. Tell me what you think after you've tried it!
makes 4 servings
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 pound fiddleheads ferns, cleaned (see instructions above)
2 medium shallots, finely minced
Finely chopped zest and juice of one lemon
1/4 cup loosely packed fresh mint leaves
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
3/4 cup cracked and toasted whole or slivered almonds
Heat a heavy-bottomed skillet or cast iron pan over high heat until very hot; when you add the oil, it should begin to smoke. Immediately add the fiddlehead ferns to the pan, salt them lightly, cover the pan and and begin to sauté the fiddleheads, continuing to toss or stir as they brown.
Leave the cover on the pan for 5 minutes, then remove a fiddlehead from the pan, take a bite and see if has softened. If the fiddleheads are ready, add the shallots, lemon zest and juice, and mint leaves. Season to taste with salt and pepper, add the butter and remove the pan from the heat, letting it sit covered for 3 minutes before serving.
Garnish with the fiddleheads with almonds and serve warm, as a first course, or as a side dish to accompany fish or any other protein that complements this wild ingredient from the spring forest.