Seeking the heart of fiddlehead ferns

If anyone ever asks me why this blog is called the ‘odd’ pantry — it is named so for vegetables like fiddlehead ferns. When one first encounters them on the grocery shelves one isn’t even really sure what kingdom of life they belong to. They could be worms — no, more like caterpillars — or maggots — curled up. They could be giant microbes, like the spirogyra we learned about in school. They might be seaweed. Have a look:

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Are we really supposed to eat that thing?

Fiddlehead ferns are the baby fronds of various types of ferns. They are harvested wild, not cultivated, which explains their rarity on the shelves. But when you happen to see them, grab some, because they are full of fiber, omega-3’s, potassium, and so forth. I believe the fiddleheads one sees in California are the ostrich ferns.

To clean them, soak them in warm water for a few minutes to shake the dirt off, rinse, and do this again. I don’t think you can get all the brown off (at least I wasn’t able to), but not all the brown stuff is dirt. Do snip off the brown tips of the stems.

Having never tried them before, I had to guess about their taste and how to cook them.

First, I tried a method very much like in this recipe. Good, but the fiddleheads don’t seem to char very easily; and, they have a slippery and chunky texture which needed a stronger set of seasonings to stand up to it, I thought.

So second, I tried a different method, which I thought was better.

Step 1:

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Cut them up in about half inch sized lengths.

Step 2: Saute

Heat about 2 tablespoons of oil in a pan on medium high. When it shimmers, put in mustard seeds; wait till they pop, then put in the fiddleheads. Stir. They will go from looking like this:

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to looking like this in a few minutes of medium high sauteing.

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At this point, I threw in some onions. This time I cut them in thin strips, by first halving the onion, giving it one cross cut from root end to stem end, and then slicing it as narrowly as I can. Put them into the pan and stir for a minute.

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Then it is time for half a teaspoon turmeric, red chili powder, and the salt.

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Now the problem with the slippery texture of the fiddleheads is that spices don’t stick to it. So, we need glue in the dish, that the spices will combine with, and that will stick to the ferns. What ingredient is a good glue? Hmm…I used sesame seeds,  ground up, about a third of a cup (super useful to keep a coffee grinder around, just for spices; takes just a minute for jobs of this sort).

Step 3: Braise.

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Stir the sesame seed paste with the fiddleheads, add a half a cup of water, and there — we have the glue that we wanted. One teaspoon of tamarind paste goes in. Stir, cover, simmer on low for about ten minutes, and what we have is this:

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How did it turn out? Well, we had it as one of the sides with roti, for dinner. I thought it was yummy.

But I don’t think my quest for the heart of fiddlehead ferns is over yet. This dish was good but didn’t show off their quintessential fiddlehead-ness. I will be trying other ways to cook them…watch this space.


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