Monday, July 16, 2007
Fiddling Around with New Ingredients
We try to eat local as much as possible, but once in a while there is that irresistible culinary quest that appears in the produce section. That one item that makes you stop the cart and say, “What the hell is that?!”
We had such a moment just a couple weeks ago. Both my husband and I were drawn to these odd, dark green curls of vegetable. He immediately sought out his favorite produce section staffer and she came over.
“Oh, fiddlehead ferns,” she said. She offered us a raw one to sample. Perhaps not the greatest idea, I find out later, but how are you going to know? The ferns have a earthy, “green” flavor to them. Think about being deep in the woods for a walk on a damp, early spring day. You know that smell? The one like fresh dirt and new growing things? That’s the flavor of fiddleheads.
The ferns are harvested while they are still young and tightly furled, hence the common name that references the carved shapes like those on the front of a violin.
Two of the more common varieties of ferns are the young shoots of cinnamon and ostrich ferns found only in the northeastern and central-eastern U.S. These are two varieties considered more safe to eat as ferns often contain carcinogens and one of which, bracken, has been associated with stomach cancer. Fiddleheads are most often sourced from ostrich ferns.
Different approaches and theories exist, but one recommendation for cooking ferns is to clean the brown and yellow spots off, wash them, and put them in water and boil for 10 minutes, then empty the water and bring to a boil again, cooking to desired tenderness. The first change of water is supposed to reduce the ferns’ bitterness from tannins and toxins. Once I learned this, I opted not to feed the Kiddo the final dish.
Some of the ferns also contain an enzyme that breaks down thiamine, so too much consumption can lead to a vitamin B deficiency.
Other caveats exist for the harvest of the plants. Since each shoot only has seven tops, it is recommended not to harvest more than three of the fiddleheads in order to keep the harvest sustainable. Fiddleheads, like morel mushrooms, are not grown commercially.
Fiddleheads, Fava and Asparagus Saute
1/2 pound of fiddlehead ferns, washed, brown and yellow spots removed
1 pound fava beans in pods
1/2 pound asparagus tips
1/3 cup sharp aged cheese like pecorino, grated
2 tbs. butter
1 clove garlic minced
Boil the fiddleheads for at least 10 minutes. Change the water and boil again for a few minutes. Drain. Remove the fava beans from their pods. Blanch the fava beans in boiling water for a minute. Drain and place in ice water immediately. Peel the skin from each fava bean (yes, the beans you have to peel twice. Good thing they are tasty.). Melt butter in skillet and sauté the garlic for a minute. Add fava beans, fiddleheads and asparagus tips and continue to sauté for about five minutes. Remove from skillet and top with grated pecorino. If you don’t have fiddleheads (or don’t want to try them) this is a great recipe for just fava beans.
I have to admit all the advice on toxins is a bit of a culinary turn off! But, it does not prevent me from wanting to try new things. I have a bunch of Thai greens and something called water spinach in the fridge now. Those at least were grown local.