Fiddlehead ferns are one of the delicious telltale signs of spring. While there are a few varieties, the most edible and the one most commonly found in markets and on restaurant menus are ostrich ferns. These tightly wound, disc-shaped vegetables are the curled fronds of a young fern, that are harvested during spring before the frond has a chance to mature and uncurl.
They have a bright green color, snappy texture — like green beans — and a grassy, woodsy taste, similar to asparagus.
When it comes to preparing fiddleheads, there are two important things to know. First, steer clear of eating fiddleheads raw; they should always be cooked first. When eaten raw in large quantities, some varieties of fiddlehead ferns have been known to cause illness.
Second, preparing them is quite easy. Cook them any way you might cook asparagus — they can be boiled, steamed, and sautéed. To prepare, wash the curled-up tips carefully and remove any brown chaff. The chaff is either furry or paper-like. Trim off the browned ends, then cook as you wish. Fiddleheads are delicious on their own sautéed with butter and shallots, or tossed with pasta or risotto.
Eastern Fiddlehead. While almost everyone has heard of "fiddlehead ferns," the coiled, emerging tip of certain varities of wild ferns, most people think only of the Eastern Fiddlehead, the Ostrich fern (Matteucia struthiopteris) when they think of edible fiddleheads.
Western Fiddlehead . But there is another widely consumed wild fern, the lady fern (Athyrium filix-femina). The Lady fern is a primarily a Western fern variety with growing ranges from California to Alaska, although they have been reported to be found growing in eastern Canada. Lady fern fiddleheads, often referred to simply as "western fiddleheads," are less popular than the Eastern ostrich fern fiddleheads, because of the slightly bitter flavor that they sometimes have - especially when not prepared properly. The texture of the western fiddlehead is crunchy and juicy. The flavor of fiddleheads is strongly grassy and woodsy with a pronounced tannic (occasionally astringent) finish. But with proper cooking, the flavor of western fiddleheads develops fully and the bitter tannic finish dissipates.