Food

Why Fiddlehead Ferns Are the New Superfood You Have to Try This Spring

The edible leaves of young ostrich fern plants pack a healthy and delicious punch.

Raw Organic Green Fiddlehead Ferns Ready for Cooking
Photo Credit: Brent Hofacker/Shutterstock

The word "superfood" sounds a bit made up, like a description of a radioactive carrot that has developed telepathy, or a pumpkin that saves a bus full of schoolchildren from peril. In reality, the term applies to foods that offer health benefits above and beyond their nutrient value.

Kale stole the superfood spotlight in recent years. Before that there was spinach, which Popeye helped make into a superfood almost a century ago. But have you ever heard of the fiddlehead fern?

Fiddleheads are the edible, coiled-up leaves of young ostrich fern plants. As their name suggests, they resemble the scroll of a violin. Appearing once a year around springtime—before they become fully fledged fronds that are too bitter to eat—fiddleheads have long been a delicacy of choice in the northeastern regions of North America from Maine to Canada, where they naturally sprout.

Native Americans are said to have been the first to discover this edible leaf back in the 1800s, which tastes like a mix of asparagus, spinach and broccoli. Fiddleheads have long been eaten by people in Northern France, Asia and the Russian far east, where the fern is often picked during autumn and preserved in salt over the course of winter.

Given this widespread historical use, fiddleheads have all the makings of a superfood. In order to qualify, though, we first need to know how they help our health.

The answer lies in the variety of nutrients the feisty fern contains. One study conducted by the Pacific Agri-Food Research Center and published in the Canadian Journal of Plant Science, found that Fiddleheads, similar to spinach, are rich in omega-3 fatty acids. Though unlike spinach, lead researcher DeLong explained to the press, fiddleheads also contain “high concentrations of antioxidants.”

In fact, DeLong continued, fiddleheads have twice the antioxidant content of blueberries. This together with the fern's fatty acid content, means that fiddleheads “have anti-inflammatory properties, which could make them very useful in the treatment and prevention of many diseases,” said DeLong.

Like any self-respecting superfood, that’s not all. Fiddleheads also contain small amounts of protein and carbohydrates, both necessary for a balanced diet. As for vitamins, fiddleheads contain both C and A, which help with vision, immune system functioning and the regulation of gene expression. Finally, fiddleheads are rich in iron and phosphorus, minerals that help with red-blood cell production and the formation of cell membranes and bone, respectively.

Starting to sound pretty super, right? There is one major downside to the plant, however: its availability. Outside of Maine and Canada, you will generally be able to find them sold at Whole Foods around the U.S., fresh in springtime or pickled and frozen in the off-season. When you buy fresh fiddleheads, they should have a tightly coiled head, with a stem around two inches in length.

If you’re lucky enough to hail from the northeastern reaches of the continent, you can learn a couple of simple steps to harvest your own fiddleheads in springtime. David Fuller, an expert in agriculture, offered a few foolproof tips in an article published by the University of Maine.

“It is important,” Fuller advises, “to properly identify ostrich ferns.” The reason being that the fern is often mistaken for the similar-looking bracken fern, which has been known to cause cancer when tested on laboratory rats. Fuller lists three foolproof ways for identifying fiddleheads in spring.

  1. Look for a “deep U-shaped groove on the inside of the smooth stem.”
  2. There will be “thin, brown, paper-like scales covering the newly emerging fiddleheads,” which fall off once they grow.
  3. Keep an eye out for the “previous year’s fertile frond,” which “will be dark brown in color.” That said, cautions Fuller, “not all ostrich fern crowns will have fertile fronds.”

After you’ve either bought or picked your own fiddleheads, now what? For starters, it is recommended that you remove the brown papery husk before washing it in cold water. From there, you should boil fiddleheads for 15 minutes (12, if steamed) to avoid consuming any potential toxins found in the raw vegetable and to remove the bitterness.

As fiddleheads are similar in flavor to asparagus, many recipes suggest serving the fertile greens with hollandaise sauce, butter, lemon, vinegar, parmesan cheese, or simply chilled with some mayonnaise.

For those with greater culinary  ambitions, you can take a leaf out of the book of a number of other cultures that enjoy the edible fern. Indonesians prepare fiddleheads in a spicy coconut sauce, a dish known as gulai pakis. In the Philippines they like to combine the fern with tomato, salted egg slice and a simple vinaigrette as a salad. If neither of those grab your fancy, here are 13 recipes you can fiddle with.

Robin Scher is a freelance writer from South Africa currently based in New York. He tweets infrequently @RobScherHimself.

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