A Walk on the Wild Side (with Fiddlehead Ferns)

When a produce share brings both berries and foraged delicacies, a home cook sautés outside her comfort zone


Jennifer Ward Barber

In this week's share: fiddlehead ferns, strawberries, arugula, green beans, lettuce, beets, cherry tomatoes, and apples.

This week I herald the arrival of spring! Not so much because it's suddenly warm and sunny in Boston—it's not—but because my CSA share contained not just arugula but also strawberries and fiddlehead ferns.

Who doesn't love strawberries? Who doesn't especially love strawberries after a winter of potatoes? Granted, these were not the best strawberries I'd ever tasted—they had made the trip from an organic farm in Florida—but they were a good sight better than any I'd find at the supermarket. I thought of incorporating them into some kind of dessert, but instead I simply ate them all while standing at the kitchen counter, watching the sun set, and trying to decide what to make for dinner. They were lovely.

But, let's face it, strawberries are for amateurs. Fiddlehead ferns, on the other hand, are special. With ramps and morels, they form the holy trinity of spring foraging. I've been curious about them for years, but I have a healthy fear of foraging; I am a city kid at heart and I just don't trust myself to tell poisonous plants from edible ones. But here were these fiddleheads, picked and bagged just for me. I couldn't wait to try them.

I did a little research before I started to cook—I'd waited this long and didn't want to mess things up—and was startled to find no mention of the ferns in any of the six or so Alice Waters cookbooks I own. Nothing from the doyenne of seasonal cooking? I felt a little abandoned. Deborah Madison was no help either. Dismayed, I resorted to the Internet. Wikipedia informed me that, according to the Centers for Disease Control, fiddleheads can cause food poisoning unless very thoroughly cooked. I found this slightly alarming, but as someone who drinks raw milk, I took it with a grain of salt. The CDC is always getting worked up about something.

Digging a little deeper, I found a newsletter written by a congenial organic farmer from New Hampshire. He offered what seemed like very sound advice: the first time you are eating something, cook it simply, so you know how it tastes. I could do that. I thoroughly washed the fiddleheads in a few changes of water and chopped some garlic. I sautéed the garlic in olive oil, then added the fiddleheads and a splash of water, and cooked them for about seven minutes.

To be honest, I wasn't that impressed with my results. The ferns did taste like spring, but then again, so does grass. On further reflection, I recognized that "tastes like grass" might be what one ought to expect when eating ferns. A splash of red wine vinegar counteracted the grassy taste a bit. It wasn't that they weren't edible; it's just that they weren't revelatory.

I'll give them another chance if I ever get my hands on some morels and ramps and fresh peas. With a little chicken stock and lots of butter, I can imagine them all coming together into the perfect spring ragout. In the meantime, though, perhaps I'll stick with strawberries.