Fiddling About

Young ferns make for the freshest of springtime meals

By Edible Pioneer Valley, Photographs by Sandy D’Amato

Fiddleheads, with their deep-green color and springy form, may remind you of a violin straight from the imagination of Dr. Seuss. These bright coils are the immature fronds of ostrich ferns. They sinuously emerge from the soil as the ground warms in spring, and along with ramps, are an easily-foraged addition to your dinner table. They taste like something wild crossed with asparagus and green beans.

Unlike ramps, the supply of fiddleheads is in good shape, so over-forging shouldn’t be a problem. That said, practice good etiquette by always leaving at least 50% of the fronds unplucked. 

Ostrich fern fiddleheads are what most people forage for. Some cultures forage for bracken ferns as well, but this identification guide is only for ostrich fern fiddles. (Some ferns contain toxic compounds, unless you’re an experienced forager, or traveling with one, stick to ostrich fern fiddleheads for safety.) 

Look for a deep, U-shaped groove on the inside of the smooth stem. The fiddlehead coil will be covered in brown papery scales. You want to pick tighty coiled fiddleheads––if they have started to unfurl, leave them alone. 

When you get your bounty home it’s essential to blanch the fiddleheads before final cooking. Wash them well, rubbing off as much of the papery layer as possible. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Boil the fiddleheads for about 5 minutes: The water will become murky brown. Drain them off and either chill them for use later or throw them directly into a sauté pan to finish cooking them. 

The fiddleheads gracing our cover were foraged by Joe Czajkowski from the fields around his Hadeley farm. He had the majority of last spring’s yield flash-frozen and stored at the Franklin County CDC’s Food Processing Center. What a treat to find to find local fiddleheads in January!

Try fiddleheads in Sandy D’Amato’s recipe for Spring Vegetable Ragout.

Take It, It's Free!

A Chef’s Foraging Journey, Urban and Ancient

Photo by Sanford D'Amato

Photo by Sanford D'Amato

Story by Sanford D’Amato
Photograph by Dominic Perri

I was weaned by a professional shopper, my mother. I must have spent half of my early years in her tow shopping the meccas of my hometown, Milwaukee, through the 1950s. You could find me sitting for hours in the dreaded chair posted outside of every dressing room, waiting and waiting while the controlling person with the money tried on every stitch of available clothing. This was always followed by a placating reward: a visit to the deli for a tasty treat.

To balance out that early experience was my father, a grocer and a fruit and vegetable savant. I would accompany him on his daily trips to the early-morning produce markets, where we would scour various purveyors’ wares to find the most luscious examples of the season’s bounty. After we loaded the station wagon, we were off to a satisfying workingman’s breakfast. 

That Pavlovian training laid the groundwork for the “pro shopper” that I am today. I understand discounts and sales and have the patience to spend hours sliding hangers on a sale rack until that real deal appears. That patience and eye for detail has carried over to my cooking profession. I always “work” a farmers’ market by getting there right before opening and checking out every booth for quality and price before making any purchases. 

As much as I revel in a good deal, there is one word that transcends it: free. Those magical four letters send my adrenaline into hyper-flow, whether it’s a trade show where I leave with two shopping bags full of promotional key chains, wristbands, and sun visors, or braking to a screeching halt at a street-side “free” sign to load whatever it is into the back of the car for closer inspection. 

I realized I was hooked during my first week living in New York City in the early ’70s. I muscled an oversized wing chair with rotted fabric—but a still-sturdy frame—from the spot where it was left out on the street up to my miniscule fourth floor walk-up apartment, where the only place it would fit was in front of the stove. 

Ironically, I have spent my life in a profession built on the concept of free product. In the earliest days of cooking, all cooks were first hunters and gatherers. This brings me to one of my most admired avocations: foraging. Foragers are the sultans of free, possessing skill and knowledge that most of us have lost through centuries of pre-packaged commodity food.

Throughout the years of my cooking career, I have worked with many foragers, but beyond digging up clams on the Connecticut coast or stumbling over puffball mushrooms larger than a beach ball, I’ve always just waited for the delivery rather than make that sometimes life-or-death decision (as with some mushrooms) on my own. Beyond the wealth of young dandelions growing in the cracks of the city sidewalks, the urban setting in which I spent most of my life was a barren foraging location.

With our move to Hatfield, which is plopped right in the middle of prime rural farmland on the banks of the Connecticut River, our former scenario has taken a fast 180° turn. After 30-some years of buying foraged fiddleheads and ramps for our former restaurants, now I just have to hop on my bike and, within minutes, I’m filling my lined backpack with a mother lode of each—fresher than I’ve ever had. And I know that this is just the appetizer to my years of gathering ahead. This balance between hunt and reward is my dream shopping experience. Only one thing makes it better—they’re free! 

Read more about foraging for fiddleheads in our Cover Story