I must have been about 16 when it occurred to my father that the proliferate Maine dandelion could be combated by your average household Hoover. In other words, my dad vacuumed our lawn. I can admit (now) that I am a bit jealous I didn’t come up with the idea myself, though at the time I didn’t exactly enlist my services to get out the extension cords. Ours was a well-trafficked street.
My dad, needless to say, is an original thinker. He was also onto fiddleheads well before the rising tide of foodie-ism. Of course Mainers have long known about these delicious furled fronds, but my dad is a Florida man who spent his formative years catching snakes and anoles in his parents’ turfy Bermuda-grass lawn. Yet I have distinct memories of Dad disappearing somewhere into the reaches of our backyard every spring, and returning with a handful of those bright, wild spirals. He would then lay them delicately on a pillow of dampened paper towel inside a Tupperware container, and they would go into the refrigerator until we figured out something to do with them.
Jim Jarmucsh has been famously quoted: “Nothing is original. Steal from anywhere that resonates with inspiration or fuels your imagination … Authenticity is invaluable; originality is non-existent.” This is indeed the case with cooking. While some might point to such culinary inventions as the micro-foam and jelly version of pasta Bolognese as original thinking by a Michelin-starred chef, in my own approximation such a dish can only be called tiny and strange.
My brand of cooking is more about necessary interpretation, a “let’s see what we can do with this here” sort of approach to cuisine that usually starts with an ingredient or two from which a meal can be built. Most of my tricks have been stolen from a potpourri of other cooks so I suppose you could say that my cooking – and this could be true for all of us – has no choice but to strive towards the authentic.
But back to fiddleheads, I would have to vote for them as one of my favorite and most inspiring ingredients. Because they are neither cultivated nor farmed, and are available only in New England for a short time between May and June, there aren’t a lot of recipes to get distracted by. And having made the unfortunate discovery that fiddleheads do not freeze well (they turn into their exact opposites by becoming brown and spongy) I make it a point to prepare as many pounds as two people can consume during their short season. This means coming up with some creative, some might say authentic, variations to keep things interesting.
My approach always begins with the basic technique I learned (stole) from my dad: parboil, drain, then sauté with garlic, butter, salt and pepper until the bitterness is gone. Since these days most people shun an overcooked vegetable, the tendency is often to remove fiddleheads from heat before they are truly done. Although a lightly cooked fiddlehead will be pleasantly crisp, it will also retain a metallic bitterness that has the mouthfeel of sucking on an old penny. Interestingly, I have found that fresher fiddleheads often need to cook longer (usually on the order of 7-10 minutes). A properly cooked fiddlehead brings out a silky texture in the plant, softens the bitterness, and also ensures that naturally occurring toxins have been removed.
Of course it is easy to stop here, toss the cooked greens alongside a cut of meat, starch, and call it a day. Which is just what I did with my first batch this season. Justin and I had visited our parents and returned on a Sunday evening to our urban abode – he with venison steaks from his father, and I with fiddleheads from mine. I had also picked up some fresh butter at the Washington farmer’s market, from Snowy Hill Farm, which lent the greens a pungent and grassy flavor. Along with mashed macomber turnips we savored and remembered our midcoast weekend, washing it down with an earthy Sangiovese.
The following night we enjoyed our fiddleheads atop a homemade pizza with prosciutto and fresh mozzarella, and the next in a bright yellow omelette made with farm eggs and Snowy Hill’s “Dill Bovre,” a kind of cow’s milk chevre spread. And by Wednesday, having made a smallish dent in my booty of juvenile ferns, I was anxious to enact a recipe that I had been mentally plotting for days.
Surely someone, somewhere, has come up with it before, however, I am none-the-less proud of my culinary revelation that cooked fiddleheads can be simply, deliciously, chopped into a pesto. I just cook the fiddleheads as my dad taught me, let them cool, and lightly blend in a food processor with a bit of olive oil and extra salt. In the past I used the pesto as a topping on crackers (it is particularly good with an Italian truffle pecorino cheese) but it had never occurred to me that it might also serve as a kind of pasta sauce – just like a traditional pesto Genovese.
Okay, so it’s not exactly as original as vacuuming dandelions from the front yard. But it was delicious! I simply prepared my pesto (along with an extra batch of fiddleheads that I kept whole) and tossed with a fresh mushroom linguine from my favorite pasta man, Al Capone (located in Somerville, MA). On top I crumbled a generous portion of Snowy Hill ricotta salata, sautéed shallots, and crispy prosciutto that I had lightly toasted beforehand.
Needless to say this dish was the highlight of my fiddlehead season. It brought the kind of joy that, for me, is best discovered in the kitchen through the process of creating something that feels, well, sort of authentic. And those lovely ferns help me do just that.