April and May (occasionally a bit of the beginning of June) is the season of the fiddlehead ferns: the unfurled fronts of the Ostrich Fern, which - once opened - is one of those "super carginogen" to the point of being almost poisonous. This shouldn't scare you off, though, as I have eaten them plenty of times without issue. They're difficult to find and because of their short season and rarity, wind up on the "top shelf" of farmers markets and specialty stores in terms of cost.
If you're really looking for a day of fiddlehead fun, try the annual fiddlehead festival in Maine, where the veggie has a long history of use. Around the world, as well, there have been plenty of non-food uses. Siberia and Norway have used them for beer making, North America has used them as a natural remedy for intestinal worms and diarrhea, and all over Europe they've been used a a natural preservative for wine.
Rarely are they cultivated, but rather foraged in forested areas. When freshly foraged, they can be used as versatilely as most green veggies as long as their steamed or boiled first; the cooking removes that toxin that can make you excruciatingly sick.
Ferns are still a little stringy, a little bitter but have a nice juicy crunchy bite – a little like biting into a crisp succulent. There is some spice, a little earthiness, and lend themselves well to this salad which uses different fats to add richness and heat and acid to balance that fat. If you're sensitive to heat, use crushed chili flakes to make it a bit mild, or use some smoked paprika if you're very sensitive.
Since you're already in a specialty store or farmers market for the fiddlehead ferns, make one extra stop to pick up some aged goat cheese.
Fiddlehead Salad with Bacon, Squash Blossoms and Goat Cheese
Fiddleheads, cleaned and trimmed
Butter, Bacon Fat and Duck Fat (available at Whole Foods, farmers markets, specialty shops and butchers)
Harder, aged goat cheese (such as a goat gouda) shaved
Bacon bits or lardons
Mixed greens, such as mesclun and spinach or spring mix
Champagne vinaigrette (3 parts good olive oil, 1 part champagne vinaigrette, salt and pepper, whisked or shaken)
Calabrian chilis, diced (optional, if available)
1. Trim off any brown part at the end and rinse the ferns well in a colander.
2. Bring a large pot of salted water to a rolling boil and blanch the ferns until bright green (2 or so minutes) drain, and move
quickly to an ice bath to immediately stop them cooking (this is called "blanching and shocking")
3. In a deep saute pan (such as cast iron), heat up equal parts butter, duck fat and bacon fat (you can use change this to be
one, two or three in a one-to-one ratio).
4. When fats are melted, hot, and sizzling, add the cleaned ferns to the fat with a small pinch of salt, a couple twists of fresh ground pepper, two cloves of minced garlic, and a hefty pinch of heat (use cayenne, red pepper flakes, Korean chili
flakes; do not use liquid heat such as hot sauce, Sriracha, sambal etc) and juice of half a lemon.
5. Fry it like this until the ferns are just browned (taking care not to let the fats burn), then drain the fat from the ferns and
pat with a paper towel. Reserve the left over fats for future dishes.
6. Cool the ferns to room temperature and toss with raw squash blossoms, crisp bacon bits. Add mixed greens and diced calabrian chilis, if using, and toss lightly with champagne vinaigrette.
And just for fun, a fiddlehead wine recipe! (I can’t wait til next season to give it a shot!)