Fiddleheads are the most ephemeral of vegetables. After lying dormant for the winter, coiled beneath the damp earth of forest floors and stream banks, they began unfurling about this time of year.
Those with a hunting spot head out to duck under drooping hemlocks with their noses to the ground, on the prowl for New England's most unique vegetable. Its followers tend to be fanatics; gathering enough of the ferns so that they can sell and eat 'em now, while saving plenty to pickle for later.
If you've ever eaten a fiddlehead sautéed in bacon grease and doused with a dash of salt, it's an obsession plain enough to understand. The coiled ostrich ferns' crisp texture and taste reminiscent of a cross between asparagus and spinach make them a delectable wild spring edible.
Unfortunately, the Cape is a poor hunting ground for the ferns. The lack of freshwater streams, rich topsoil, and heavy forest cover make for little acceptable habitat. But inland, the ground is teaming with them, and local grocery produce vendors have taken notice. Phoenix Fruits in Orleans is offering fiddleheads by the pound fresh from Deerfield, and Ruma Fruit & Produce, an Everett-based specialty store, received a shipment of 2,000 pounds just this morning. Happily, they're willing to share. Wherever you find them, give the fleeting fronds a try—it won't be long before they're gone.
Clean 1 pound fresh fiddleheads and boil for at least 10 minutes (the University of Maine Cooperative Extension warms that the ferns should be boiled for 10 minutes before eating, as an outbreak of food-borne illness was attributed to them in 1990. Eating the greens raw or sautéed is not recommended.)
Heat up 3 tablespoons saved bacon fat in a frying pan. Sauté fiddleheads for 3-5 minutes. Season with salt and pepper to taste; serve sizzling as a dinner side.