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Shannon Kuhn: Fiddlehead ferns: fresh, local greens for early summer

  • Author: Shannon Kuhn
  • Updated: June 21, 2016
  • Published May 23, 2014

Solstice is still a month away, but the frenzied dance of summer is in full swing.

Alaska summer mania is a full-body fever. The symptoms: an inability to stay indoors and an irrational feeling that sleep is a nuisance and instead you must start filling the freezer and stocking the shelves with summer's bounty. Next comes a never-ending checklist of subsistence activities that trumps all other needs in your mind: go dipnetting for salmon, then filet, smoke, can, and vacuum-seal; forage for fiddleheads and devil's club buds; harvest the garden; make pickles and kimchi; go berry picking; make jam; go hunting; process meat; learn to identify mushrooms; blanch vegetables. The list goes on and on.

People with midnight sun fever will commonly neglect to clean their houses and do laundry. You can identify them lingering near the office coffee pot in hopes of caffeinating their lack of sleep away and anxiously bolting out the door at 5 p.m. on the dot to go climb a mountain or catch some sockeye.

The time has nearly passed in Southcentral Alaska for one early-summer treat: the edible and delectable fiddlehead fern.

Fiddleheads are the young coiled fronds of the ostrich fern. They taste similar to asparagus but with a texture that's more like a snappy green bean. You can cook them in all the same ways you might cook a vegetable, including blanching, sauteeing or roasting.

I recommend adding fiddleheads to any dish where they can be the star, particularly risottos and pasta dishes. They also make a good addition to salads, frittatas and pizza. Fiddleheads are fun to pickle, should you find yourself with so many fiddleheads that you can't eat them all at once.

Here are some fun and simple ideas to use fiddleheads in your cooking:

Fiddlehead and roasted garlic pizza: Remove brown scales and wash fiddleheads thoroughly. Roll out pizza dough and put on a baking sheet lightly dusted with cornmeal. Add sauce and cheese, then top with roasted garlic and fiddleheads.

Put in an oven preheated to 400 degrees. Bake for about 20 minutes, until the cheese is golden and the crust is fully cooked. Remove from oven and let cool before slicing and serving.

Fiddlehead avocado toasts: Clean and cook fiddleheads and add to a generous layer of ripe avocado over a toasted slice of baguette. Add a slice of melted cheese if you dare.

Fiddlehead and caramelized onion omelet: Add boiled or sauteed fiddleheads and caramelized onions to an omelet.

Fiddlehead and shrimp linguini: Here's a pasta game-changer -- incorporate fiddleheads and wild Alaska spot shrimp. Saute the fiddleheads in olive oil with garlic and lemon juice and make sure to get a good sear on your shrimp. Toss into linguini with a light cream sauce and top with lemon zest and fresh ground pepper.

Pickled fiddleheads: In my book, anything is good pickled and fiddleheads are no exception. After cleaning, pack tightly in a sterilized Mason jar and layer with your favorite flavors (try sliced shallots, garlic and lemon zest). Boil a pickling mixture of two cups water, two cups vinegar, 1/4 cup sugar, and one teaspoon salt. Pour into jars and can according to directions.

Shannon Kuhn lives in Anchorage, where she writes about food and culture.

From the University of Maine Cooperative Extension:

Harvesting fiddleheads: Harvest the tender little rolls of ostrich fern as soon as they are an inch or two above the ground. Carefully brush off and remove the papery brown scales. Before harvesting in the wild, make sure that you can properly differentiate the ostrich fern fiddleheads from other fern fiddleheads. Not all ferns are edible; in fact, bracken ferns are carcinogenic and should not be consumed.

Cleaning fiddleheads: Place fiddlehads in a colander and thoroughly rinse or spray them off with clean, cold potable water. Place the rinsed fiddlehead in a bowl full of clean, cool water after rinsing to remove the remainder of the brown papery coverings and repeat as needed. They should appear clean at this point.

Short-term storage: Remember to keep fiddleheads refrigerated until you are ready to cook or preserve them. They can be stored in the refrigerator for up to two weeks.

Preservation (freezing fiddleheads): Due to the short season for fiddleheads, some people like to preserve them for later use. Freezing is the most common and safest way to preserve fiddleheads. To freeze fiddleheads, make sure to follow these steps:

Clean them based on the steps outlined above:

1. Blanch a small amount of fiddleheads for two minutes in 4-6 cups of water. The blanch time starts when the water comes to a rolling boil after adding the produce.

2. Cool in an ice bath immediately after blanching (half-ice, half-water).

3. Dry thoroughly and place into moisture- and vapor-proof containers such as re-sealable plastic bags. Do not overfill bags.

4. Place container in freezer.

5. To use frozen fiddleheads, thaw in refrigerator or cold water and follow cooking direction outlined above before serving. Fiddleheads can be thawed in a microwave for immediate consumption.

Shannon Kuhn

Food & Culture