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© Denzil Green

A Fiddlehead is the top of a fern when it first pokes through the ground in spring, curled up like the head of a fiddle. They are only available for 3 weeks in May. They are still mostly gathered from the wild, though commercial production is being explored.

They taste something like asparagus and spinach.

The most popular fern to harvest them from, and the one that is deemed the safest, is the Ostrich Fern. (see Nutrition below.) Ostrich Fern Fiddleheads will have on them brown, damp "chaff" that feels papery or "fuzz" that feels like down.

Fiddleheads are very popular throughout Asia and the Pacific, particularly in Japan and in Korea, and popular in eastern parts of North America. In Asia they are cooked; in Hawaii, just parboiled.

When buying fresh Fiddleheads, choose luminous, bright green ones that are small -- no more than 2 inches across and 2 inches tall (5 cm x 5 cm) including the stalk.

Fiddleheads can also be bought canned.

Fresh, they only have a shelf life of about 3 days.

Cooking Tips

Choose small, firm, brightly-coloured green ones.

Trim stalks to 1/4 inch (1/2 cm). Rub any scales or brown fuzz off, and rinse.

Bring salted water to a boil, add Fiddleheads, boil for 5 minutes, or steam for 8 to 10 minutes. They really do need the full cooking times to bring the flavour out.

Drain and serve. Garnish with lemon, butter or a vinaigrette.

If you are planning to sauté or otherwise cook them, steam or boil them first, to leach any toxins present in them out.




The fern that most sources identify as safe is the Ostrich Fern (Matteuccia struthiopterus.) If you are picking your own, you need to make sure of the fern varieties you are harvesting, as not all are safe to eat. Do not eat any fern past the Fiddlehead stage, or if the Fiddlehead has started to turn purple, as it can be poisonous. Make sure you fully cook them, as there are vague reports of some food poisoning from undercooked Fiddleheads, even Ostrich Fern Fiddleheads.

Some experts advise not to eat any Fiddleheads at all.

Health Canada advises to discard any steaming or simmering water that you cooked Fiddleheads in, as toxins may have leeched into the water. To make sure toxins have leeched out, they advise a longer cooking time, of 15 minutes for boiling, and 10 to 12 minutes for steaming.

Storage Hints

Store in airtight container in fridge and use within 2 days. Otherwise, freeze uncooked for up to 6 months.

History Notes

In Asia, Fiddleheads have been consumed for centuries. In North America, the Indians taught the newly-arrived colonists that they were edible.

Language Notes

In the Philippines, called "pako." In Hawaii, they are called "ho'i'o." The Hawaiian term is actually a generic one that can mean many different species of ferns, such as Diplaziums sandwichianum, Diplaziums arnotti, Athyriums meyenianum, Athyriums sandwichianum, and Diplazium escalantum.


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Also called:

Athyrium esculentum (Scientific Name); Tête de violon (French); Farntriebe (German); Warabi (Japanese)


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Bon mots

"As if a cookbook had anything to do with writing."

-- Alice B. Toklas (American writer. 30 April 1877 – 7 March 1967)

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