Fiddlehead Fern: Preparation, Cooking, Storing and Nutrition
Every year between mid April and early June young wild fern shoots, known as fiddlehead fern, appear in the forests of North American, from Virginia to Canada. The practice of gathering fiddleheads ferns, a type of edible fern from the Polypodiaceae botanical family, was learned from North American Indians whom had appreciated the fiddlehead fern, both for food and its medicinal value, long before Europeans had arrived. Different varieties of fiddlehead ferns are also eaten in India, Japan, Korea, Australia and New Zealand. Fiddlehead fern is extremely nutritious and it contains antioxidants.
When the fiddlehead’s plants emerge from the ground they are tightly curled and resemble the head of a violin; hence the name fiddlehead fern ( Matteuccia struthiopteris). They are about 4-6 inches high and must be consumed before they uncoil, by which time they will become inedible. Worldwide there are thousands of varieties of fiddlehead, the vast majority of which are inedible. The main edible variety found in North America is known as ostrich fern. Other edible varieties include the braken fern ( Pteridium aquiline), cinnamon fern ( Osmunda cinnamomea) which are highly prized in Japan and Korea and lady fern (Atbyrium filix-femina). People do pick their own fiddlehead ferns, but with many varieties being poisonous, it is not recommended. It is far safer to purchase fresh fiddlehead from wholefoods supermarket or a farmers market, unless you can correctly identify the aforementioned varieties.
Fiddlehead Fern, Preparation and Cooking: Back in the early 90’s the Center for Disease Control reported a number of cases of food poisoning from fiddlehead fern. At that time many people eat fiddlehead fern raw. Since then health authorities recommend that this vegetable should be carefully washed and boiled for a minimum of 10 minutes. However, cooked fresh fiddelhead should have a crunchy texture, and if boiled for 10 minutes this vegetable would certainly be considered overcooked. Therefore many recipes recommend to blanch fiddlehead for 3-4 minutes in boiling salted water or lightly steam them. Moreover, the common variety sold in North America, the ostrich fern, is considered by many experts to be non-toxic.
Fiddlehead has brown scales which can be removed by rubbing the vegetable between the palms of the hands. Any brown ends should be trimmed and the fiddlehead should be thoroughly washed. Aside from boiling and steaming, fiddlehead can be sautéed in butter or olive oil and is very good with a little garlic and parsley. If sautéing be sure to dry the fiddlehead with paper towel or use a salad spinner. The impressive appearance of fresh fiddlehead makes a nice garnish for entrees or soups. Fiddlehead tastes like asparagus and the two are interchangeable in most recipes.
Storing: Fresh fiddlehead is best eaten right away as it is perishable and will stay fresh for no more than two days. Another alternative is to prepare and blanch the fiddlehead for about 2 minutes in boiling water. After which it can be frozen and should then be cooked from frozen. Frozen and canned fiddlehead are also available to buy in supermarkets.
Nutritional Value: Fiddlehead fern supply’s potassium and the antioxidant vitamins C and A, or beta carotene. This spring vegetable also contains niacin and iron. It is low in calories, fat, carbohydrate and contains protein.
Fiddlehead fern contains a compound called pinosylvin, a type of phytochemical in the subclass of stilbenes that is almost identical to the more familiar antioxidant resveratrol. Resveratrol, which is also found in red wine and grapes, helps lower LDL cholesterol and has anti-carcinogenic and anti-inflammatory properties. Like resveratrol, pionsylvin is known to be a free radical scavenger or antioxidant.
In 2009 a National Agricultural Research Center in Japan identified, for the first time, a compound in fiddlehead fern which is a derivative of caffeic acid. Caffeic acid, which is most abundantly found in coffee, is a phenolic compound found in many plants that is known to inhibit the growth of carcinogens by helping to prevent oxidation and the production of free radicals. Free radicals, which are caused by a number of factors including pollution, smoking and poor diet, lead to chronic diseases such as cancer.
The research center at the University of Liege in Brussels identified a flavone known as Demethoxymatteucinol in fiddelhead fern. The flavone is thought to have anti-malerial activity. This may explain why the Maliseet Indians of New Brunswick, Canada where known to use fiddlehead fern as medicine as well as for food.