Tuesday, 26 April 2011

Hermitcraft: Fiddleheads

It's springtime, the annual Woodstock of foragers, so I'm going to post another wild edibles tip while the news is hot. And it's good news.

Fiddleheads are an iconic wild edible, one of those that, like wild asparagus and dandelion, are widely known even to respectable folk. Notwithstanding, few have actually eaten one. I guess that leaves more for me, but it's not in my nature to keep a good thing to myself, so buckle up.

Fiddleheads are the young shoots of various species of fern. On the North Coast, it's lady ferns (Athyrium). When I lived in Québec, we habitants ate fougères à l'autruche, (Matteuccia/Onoclea), called ostrich fern on the far bank. In all cases they're curled round and tight at the end, like a bishop's crosier or an old-time lacrosse racket. ("Fiddlehead" probably comes from the shoots of bracken fern [Pteridium], which look just like the head of a violin, but the term is commonly applied to all edible ferns.) They're only available for a week or so each year, which is to say, right now in planetary north. They're also a gastronomical delight, so time's a-wastin'.

These little delicacies grow in moist, shady places like low forests, riverbanks, and my yard. They can be anticipated where a wealth of last year's dead fern straw is lying around. Fiddleheads snap easily if grasped near the earth, or you can use a pair of scissors, like I do when I'm prepared, or a pocket knife, which is what I really do. They come in many shapes and sizes, owing to special and environmental variation, but only ones that are still fully round should be eaten; once they unwind and begin to leaf out, they're said to be toxic. Overripe sprouts haven't killed me yet, but they're stringy and acrid, so don't bother.

Most fiddleheads have a tenderness and subtle, earthy flavour that's hard to describe. Some folks suggest asparagus (another edible fern that comes on about now), though I find them much more understated than that. The exception is Pteridium, whose shoots are stout, hairy, vaguely chewy, and leafless, and pack a pronounced bitter-almond bite. Experts in the 1970s claimed they also cause cancer, based on studies done in Japan where bracken shoots are much prized. I tend to take such reports with a grain of salt (ever notice how the "carcinogenic" foods are always something obscure, that just a few [primarily weird] people eat?), but frankly, I don't much relish the taste of Pteridium. You may feel differently.

But all the others I ingest with great gusto. They can be served raw in salad with a nice vinaigrette, but I like them best lightly steamed, with a little butter, lemon, and cracked pepper, or with shredded bacon and some of its grease. You can also drop your shoots in a good soup, at the very end, or lay them on rice before reheating it in the Replicator. In any case, the trick is always to cook them as little as possible. When in doubt, undercook. (If that's even technically possible.)

No matter how you eat them, there's nothing like fresh fiddleheads, so good that even city people sometimes eat them, as long as they come from a market and cost a hundred dollars. (As I've seen them in Québec.) But be brave and cut yours free-range. Out where nobody asked them to be, where they are therefore uncool, illegitimate, even seditious.

Livin' that hermit life.

Cereal box prize:
Judd Grossman

Judd is one of the few musicians I've encountered who shares my take on country music. If I'm a little chagrined to find I can't claim sole ownership of the territory, I'm happier to find someone who does it better. Better yet, you can listen to hours of Judd's music at this link, absolutely free. Some are demo excerpts, but most are full-length songs, performed live. Some are Judd's own voice and guitar, some are just Judd's guitar, and some are Judd in duet with others, and they're all great. Fine musicianship, fine arrangements, fine all around.

Even if you don't like country, drop by. His style is pretty universal, his covers come from every genre of popular music, and his original compositions are excellent.

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