You know that magical moment when you approach a clearing in woods? The sun is dripping through tall, overhead trees, and springy green moss covers stones. You see those whimsical ferns popping up from the ground with furled green fronds — seemingly from an enchanting story.
Those are fiddlehead ferns.
Fiddlehead ferns aren’t a particular type of fern; rather, they are a stage of growth. They are harvested early in the season, usually in May, before the coil has a chance to unfurl — creating a delightful and delicious vegetable.
The main species of sought-after fiddlehead fern found in Appalachia is the ostrich fern or Matteuccia struthiopteris. Ostrich ferns can be in the New England area, as well as eastern Canada. Other edible fiddlehead-type ferns can be found in other regions, such as the bracken and lady ferns of the Pacific Northwest.
The vibrant, emerald green ostrich fern fiddleheads, named so because they look like the head of a fiddle curled up, contain a trace amount of toxins, so they must be cooked before being consumed — at least for 5-10 minutes to be safe.
First, remove any of the papery brown skin by rinsing them off. Then, you can steam, braise, sauté, roast or even pickle them — after blanching, of course.
After cooking, the bitter flavor will disappear, revealing a bright, slightly sweet essence. It’s like a mix of asparagus with a grassy and snappy green bean. Because of those light flavors, it’s best to not overdress with heavy sauces or rich dressings. They’re perfect in salads, sides or pasta.
Beginning in early spring, fiddleheads can be found in West Virginia near moist river valleys, roadside patches and other forested areas. West Virginia is graced with this naturally growing delicacy — along with many others in the spring, like ramps and morels.
Using these gifts from the ground are part and parcel of Appalachian cuisine. Not only do Appalachians know how to make use of foraged foods and native plants, they also know how to do it well. That’s just one of the reasons why Appalachian cuisine is so unique — just like the fiddlehead fern itself.