Spring in Boston is fleeting. One moment the streets are lined with dirty snow, and we hardy New Englanders walk them with long coats and dead eyes that have seen too many storms. The next, college students lounge on the banks of the Charles in the summery heat, sun glinting on exposed limbs. There are only a few weeks in between, when the air has a gentle bite to it and a person can feel comfortable in a light jacket.
During those few weeks, if you’re lucky, you might be able to track down the most transient of vegetables, the one that (briefly) signifies spring in New England like no other. Maybe you’ll find it heaped in a basket at the grocery store or farmer’s market, or even sprouting in the woods—a small green frond, tightly furled so that it resembles the scroll ornamentation on the neck of a violin. This is a fiddlehead, a young ostrich fern that has yet to unroll into its familiar feathery shape—and it tastes delicious.
Fiddlehead season is short—blink and you’ll miss it. You can only eat the ferns when they’re curled, and they won’t keep long in the fridge. They’re a pleasure as fleeting as the first days of spring—which is one of the things that makes them so special. People say they taste a bit like asparagus, but they’re asparagus without the acrid edge, a softer shade of bitter. To me, they also have a hint of the deep woods to them, a flavor that makes me think of moss and good, damp soil.
It’s a trace of wildness most of us don’t encounter often in the modern world, where our produce is almost entirely farmed rather than foraged. Fiddleheads have the unusual distinction of being a food that has to be found. I love them in part because they’re plucked from meadows and forests, the types of places I don’t get to visit as often as I’d like. Cooking up a mess of fiddlehead greens makes me feel like my childhood hero Sam Gribley.
And hey, the fact that fiddleheads are full of antioxidants, protein, zinc, and vitamins A and C doesn’t hurt.
“But Kori,” you might ask. “Why are you telling me all this?”
The truth is, yes, I think you should give fiddleheads a try. Yes, I hope I’ve convinced you to seek them out at your local farmer’s market.
But the truth is also this: Food is deeply tied to emotion and memory. It has the power to make us feel safe, or to remind us of who and where we were the last time we ate it. We pass recipes down through generations, we eat certain foods at certain holidays, we use it to welcome or celebrate or console or conjure.
For me, fiddleheads have become an annual ritual that marks the change in seasons—keeping an eye out for those curled green fronds as the air loses its chill, cooking them very simply in olive oil, and sitting down for a meal that tastes like the woods in spring.
On a fundamental level, we need food to survive, but there’s a reason so many people want to read about it, spend money on really great meals, buy solid kitchen equipment, and spend time standing by the stove. There’s meaning behind it, and catharsis, and trying a food that’s new to you can feel exciting and infinitely special. And so, too, can eating that same food once a year feel exciting and special. It’s something worth talking about.
Fiddleheads mean spring to me and, being a New Englander, I’m always enthused about the coming of spring. So, come, friends. Fiddlehead season draws near. Let’s seek out those first furled fronds, and let’s greet the spring properly.
Here’s my usual recipe:
Simple Fiddlehead Pasta with Lemon
Fiddleheads (a few handfuls)
2 Tablespoons olive oil
Pinch of salt
Red pepper flakes
Wash the fiddleheads thoroughly in cold water. Remove any papery husk that might remain on the vegetable, and trim the uncurled ends.
Bring a pot of water to a boil. Place the fiddleheads in the water and keep at a steady boil for 15-20 minutes. (Note: fiddleheads should be boiled or steamed for at least 15 minutes for food safety reasons.) Strain over the sink.
Heat olive oil in a skillet over medium heat. Saute fiddleheads in oil for 5-10 minutes. Add salt and red pepper flakes, and lemon juice to taste. Be conservative in your seasoning—you want the delicate flavor of the fiddleheads to shine through.
Serve over pasta.