Seeing as Charity was kind enough to extrapolate on what those furry green coils called fiddlehead ferns are, and from which forgotten corner of the planet they come from, it seemed only fitting that I should do some digging around of my own and figure out how the devil one cooks these curious beasts. I’ll be honest with you, up until about two weeks ago all I’d had to do with fiddleheads was to poke them about a bit at the farmers’ market, and screw up my face in an expression that encapsulated wonder, intrigue and, I have to admit, a bit of disgust. There’s no denying it, they look like furled up caterpillars (or – thank you, Charity, alien tentacles). Why would anyone want to go sticking furled up caterpillars in their mouths? Turns out, it’s because they taste rather good.
I was expecting the fiddlehead to be tough and arduous to chew through with a strong, pungent, even bitter flavor. What can I say, I was still thinking caterpillars. Yet, while there were definite grassy notes, they were surprisingly mild with a touch of sweetness to them, reminding me of fresh asparagus and crisp green beans. They were also unexpectedly tender; and if you’re careful not to overcook them, they’ll retain a pleasant crunch. When you buy them - from farmers’ markets or specialty grocers, they’ll usually be fairly well cleaned. Still, before you use them, give them a thorough rinse in plenty of cold water to dislodge any dirt caught up in their furry little beards and peel away and discard any remaining chaff (the brown, papery skin that clings onto the outside of the fiddlehead – usually this is already removed by the time the greens come your way). Otherwise, they need little preparation before cooking; just trim their stalks to about 1/4-inch. When selecting, opt for fiddleheads that are vibrant green in color (leave any behind that are yellowing), tightly curled up, and firm. A word of warning to the initiated; unlike many other spring vegetables fiddleheads cannot be eaten raw. They actually contain a toxin that will have you rolling around the floor clutching your ever-so-painful belly if ingested. Obviously, cooking destroys said toxin. Once you get them home, store fiddleheads in the fridge in an airtight Ziploc bag to keep them fresh, and try to use them up within a couple of days.
From my research, it seems the best ways to cook fiddleheads are to sauté them in a little butter or olive oil, stir fry them, blanch them briefly like you would asparagus, or simply to broil them. I decided to cook them up in a fried rice one evening – in a quick under 30-minute supper. (Truly – it only took 25 minutes. I needed to catch the light before it disappeared for the shot above, and started cooking at 7.10pm. Bam - 7.35pm, and it was in front of the camera) I have a similar dish I prepare with asparagus, only there I’m a little less heavy-handed with the spice as that recipe also includes crabmeat which is delicate and easily overwhelmed by other flavors. Here, I was going to be bold: I blanched the fiddleheads first to keep their verdant green color and crispness, then stir fried them briefly with a punchy chili, garlic and ginger paste before adding the other ingredients.
To keep my fried rice dish super seasonal I decided to forego my usual scallions, and instead throw in some ramps. I’m sure you’re a little bit sick of hearing about ramps by now (oh, but just indulge them, they only have a couple more weeks left before their season ends), seeing as they’re the rock star vegetable of spring. As soon as they shoot up, chefs start throwing them into everything from pestos and frittatas to gnocchi and roast chickens. If you’re one of the few that have escaped the ramp publicity circus, they’re wild relatives of the onion and they look like scallions but with leafier greens. When it comes to cooking with them, I like to treat the bulbs (those are the creamy white bottom ends) like the white part of scallions, and the greens like the green parts of pak choy (i.e. they only need brief cooking so just throw them in at the end of the recipe). If you want you can just keep them whole, simply broil as is with olive oil, pepper and salt until the bulbs are tender and the greens wilted. If you’re not overly keen on pungent flavors, you might want to treat the ramp more like a flavoring then a vegetable as it has quite a robust garlicky kick to it. Personally I like to embrace the overload of flavor and pair it with other strong ingredients that can give as good as they get. When it comes to assertive ingredients, you surely can’t go wrong with a little bit of bacon.
Click on for the recipe for Chili Fried Rice with Fiddlehead Ferns, Ramps and Bacon Bits…
Chile Fried Rice with Fiddlehead Ferns, Ramps and Bacon Bits
If you’re missing a little protein here, top each portion of rice with a fried egg – this is how fried rice, or nasi goreng, is served in Malaysia. Drizzle over a little soy sauce and you’re good to go.
Serves 2 as a main meal or 4 as a side dish
1/3 lb. fiddlehead ferns, cleaned and stalks trimmed to 1/4-inch
3 rashers of bacon – chopped into 1/4- inch pieces
2 large cloves garlic
1 red or green japapeno chile, seeded (if desired) and chopped
1 teaspoon peeled and finely chopped ginger
1-1/2 tablespoons vegetable or canola oil
1/2 medium onion, minced
1 tablespoon soy sauce, plus more to taste
1/4 lb. ramps, cleaned and bulbs sliced thinly and leaves chopped into 1/2-inch ribbons (keep leaves separately)
1- 1/2 cups cooked rice (I used a mixture of red, white, brown and wild rices)
Bring a medium saucepan half-filled with lightly salted water to the boil. Add the fiddlehead ferns, and blanch for 3 minutes until nearly tender. Drain in a colander and rinse under very cold water for 1 minute. Set aside.
In a medium non-stick pan, cook the bacon over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until well-browned, about 5 to 7 minutes. Transfer to a plate lined with paper towels.
Using a pestle and mortar, grind the garlic, chile and ginger to a paste. Alternatively, just finely mince the three ingredients; then combine and set aside.
Heat the oil in a large wok or skillet over medium high heat, add the onion and cook, stirring, for about 2 minutes until lightly golden. Add the garlic and chile mixture and continue to cook, stirring, for 1 minute, until the mixture is fragrant and lightly colored. Add the sliced ramp bulbs to the pan with a generous pinch of salt, and stir fry for 3 to 5 minutes until the bulbs are translucent and cooked through. Throw in the blanched fiddlehead ferns and 1 tablespoon of soy sauce, toss well and cook, stirring, for about 2 minutes until tender. Add the chopped ramp leaves, toss, until wilted – about 30 seconds to 1 minute. Then add the cooked rice, mix well and cook until everything is piping hot. Taste, and add more soy sauce if necessary. Stir in the crispy bacon bits and serve immediately.