I tried something new today.
With various comings and goings over the past few weeks, I haven’t had much chance to take in the local farmer’s markets. I feel like I’ve been missing a bunch of blink-and-you’ll-miss-it produce. So when I stopped by Trader Joe’s on the way home from work and noticed they were selling fiddlehead ferns–at $4 for a generous half-pound, a relative bargain–it felt like a nudge from the kitchen gods. Cook something seasonal. Try something you’ve never made before.
Fiddlehead ferns–so named because they’re shaped like the scroll of a violin–are ultra-seasonal, showing up for about three weeks in the middle of spring. They’re also ultra-expensive–at the Ferry Building, I’ve never seen them for less than $18 a pound. So I’d never bothered to give them a go before. Now that I had a bag of them, I had to figure out what to do with them. On a weeknight, ambitious and overly fussy preparations were out–I needed something simple and filling. So I decided to swap them into my favorite preparation for broccoli or brussels sprouts: sauteed with ribbons of prosciutto and finished with a sprinkling of crispy garlic. It’s the kind of foolproof saute I absolutely adore, because it’s decadent, nutritious and lightning-fast to prepare.
Having now tried fiddlehead ferns for the first time, the best way I can describe their flavor is…green. They taste exactly the way I imagine the color green to taste. I’m not entirely sold on whether that’s a good thing. The texture reminded me of asparagus, which I wasn’t thrilled about; after they were cooked, they developed a briny aftertaste and a mustardy tang, which I wasn’t expecting. Next time I’m not sure I’d use them as a starring vegetable; I might relegate them to the background, as a subtle flavor player and a pretty visual flourish. That said, I can definitely understand the fuss–fiddlehead ferns are romantic-looking, available only briefly each year, and delicately flavored in a way that screams spring.
So did I fall head over heels for fiddlehead ferns? No. Will I go out of my way to cook with them again? Probably not. Did they make a perfectly serviceable weeknight dinner, glazed with olive oil and tangled up with crisp prosciutto and golden garlic nuggets? Yes indeedy.
Fiddlehead Ferns with Prosciutto (serves 4)
Note: Raw fiddlehead ferns contain a toxin that causes stomach pain. The toxin is destroyed by the heat from the cooking process, so if you have to, err on the side of overcooking. You also can substitute asparagus or broccolini, cut into 2-inch pieces.
10 oz (a little over 1/2 lb) fiddlehead ferns
1 tbsp olive oil
Pinch of crushed red chili flake
2 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
4 oz prosciutto, sliced crosswise into strips
Carefully rinse and dry the fiddlehead ferns. Trim off the browned ends, and remove any brown fuzz or paperlike chaff from the fronds. Set aside.
In a large skillet, heat olive oil over medium-low heat. Add red chili flake and garlic slices and cook, stirring occasionally, for about 3 minutes, or until the garlic is golden brown. Remove the garlic from the pan and transfer to a paper towel to drain–make sure to leave as much oil as possible in the pan.
Return the pan to the heat and add the prosciutto. Saute for another 3 minutes, or until the prosciutto is just starting to get crisp. Add the ferns and saute, stirring occasionally, for another 7-8 minutes, or until the ferns are tender but still a little crunchy and the prosciutto is crispy. Add the garlic back to the pan and toss it with the prosciutto and ferns. Taste and adjust the salt as needed–chances are you won’t need any, as the prosciutto is plenty salty.
Remove from heat and serve immediately.