“Fiddlehead” ferns are the tightly furled fronds of the fern plant and are a wild edible found across much of Northern California in the springtime. They are another telltale sign of the season that we can’t let pass by without including on a menu. Called “fiddlehead” due to their resemblance to the curved handle of a violin or fiddle, they are found scattered in moist conifer and deciduous forests for a short time each year.
While there are three main species of edible fern in Northern California, the one most people are refer to when speaking of the “fiddlehead fern,” and the one most chefs use, is the Ostrich Fern. These ferns grow 3-6 feet tall, but foragers harvest the fiddleheads young and before the plant has a chance to mature, when they are about 8 to 20 inches tall. The harvested fronds should be tender and green, and still unfurled. The prized tops simply break off, and the fronds are mostly easy to gather in large quantities if you know where to find them. But they have a short harvesting season, so they are still fairly pricy due to their blink-and-you’ll-miss-them status.
Fiddlehead Ferns are bright green and crisp and snappy. They have a texture akin to a green bean and a grassy, woodsy flavor similar to asparagus. They can be prepared boiled, sautéed, and steamed and are a great addition to pasta and risotto. Like many wild edibles, fiddlehead ferns should be cooked before eating. Sometimes available at specialty stores and farmers markets, they are a fleeting, seasonal treat worth seeking out!