Friday, May 15, 2009

What's My Name?

It's a curious thing to eat something without knowing what it looks like. I'm generally fairly aware of what edible delicacies are floating out in the universe, but occasionally something crops up that's completely foreign to me. A few years ago I first tasted what you see photographed above. I didn't know that it looked like, in fact I'd never even heard its name. But I was intrigued and ordered it with excitement. Unfortunately for me, it was disguised in a puree, so I was no closer to knowing what it looked like. The flavor was difficult to place, but it seemed somewhere between asparagus and fresh spring greens. Shortly thereafter it appeared on the menu at another seasonal restaurant and it was ordered by someone else at the table. It was used as the stuffing for a ravioli primavera, and while I was no closer to identifying it visually, it was clear that this ingredient represented the best of spring freshness. The entire dish tasted as if the vegetables had been harvested that morning and cooked immediately. I envisioned sous chefs rushing back to the restaurant with cartons of food from the market with the same intensity and gusto as a surgeon cradling coolers of organs for a transplant. They'd rush into the kitchen and carefully dissect their purchases, cooking them gently so as to disrupt their freshness as little as possible.

From the color and flavor I gathered that the ingredient was green (genius!), and probably something leafy. Aside from that, I pretty much drew a blank on any other specifics. Finally, after some research (mostly internet related, but also in one of my newer cookbooks) I learned what they looked like, and with the exception of their being green, I couldn't have possibly imagined what it was I'd eaten with any less clarity. I had envisioned something like arugula, perhaps with a more frond like leaf, but I was wrong. And it was just my luck that last weekend I found the little devils (first of the season) at the farmers market, and was able to learn more about them, why they taste the way they do, and how cook them. If you're curious by now and have never heard of them, take advantage because they're popping up on seasonal menus and organic shops everywhere this week, and will only be around for two more weeks in May. Oh, as as for what they're called? Ferns. Fiddlehead ferns. And despite how they look, I promise they won't bite.

Fiddlehead ferns are so named because they resemble the top of a fiddle or violin, especially as they are coming out of the ground, topping a longer stalk. They are the unfurled fronds of a plant known as the ostrich fern, which is important since not all ferns are edible. They are very rare and difficult to find due to the fact that they are not farmed. All fiddleheads are grown in the wild and foraged by professionals that know their botany. They're native to the Northeast United States and are evidently quite well known to native New Englanders. As I mentioned, they have an very short harvesting season of just three weeks in May, and because they are so fragile (wild food isn't bred to have a long shelf life once it's picked) must be used immediately after being purchased. I know this is true since just a day after buying mine I saw a vast difference in size and color. They're usually quite dirty and need a nice cold bath in ice water before cooking.

My recipe was a bit of a disappointment, but hey, I was overdue for a kitchen failure anyway. I'm currently keeping my fingers crossed that I'll find them at the market next week for round two. If so, I promise to come back with a great recipe before their time is up. I'm leaning towards a pasta dish or a risotto, since that seems to be what everyone likes to do with these little guys (or a pesto, which I won't even consider). They're very often paired with their expensive springtime brethren, the morel mushroom. These are currently out of my price range, but if I happen to see any fall off a truck, I'll gladly use some of those too. So if you see them in your neck of the woods, give them a shot. You never know how much longer they'll be around, and at least you already know what they look like and what they're called, so you're off to a better start than I was. Have any of you ever tried them? I'd love to get some ideas on how to cook them, so please share if you have!


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