A steaming plate of emerald green fiddleheads is a special gourmet treat available for only a few short weeks every spring. Serve these tender fern shoots with a lusciously creamy wine-spiked butter sauce for a stunning side dish – a forager’s delight elevated to a culinary showpiece. And if you don’t have fiddleheads, the simple but decadent Butter Sauce is worth adding to your repertoire. It’s delicious with seafood or on other steamed vegetables (like green beans, asparagus, broccoli, etc). (Skip to recipe.)
Fiddlehead ferns are a true delicacy, heralding the arrival of spring in the select areas of Canada or northwestern United States where stands of ostrich ferns grow wild in damp, shady areas along streams or riverbanks. The tightly curled shoots of this fern have a wonderful fresh vegetal flavour and a tender-crisp texture when cooked properly. You will find them appearing in farmer’s markets for only a few short weeks, usually in May, depending on the area. They have a flavour similar to asparagus, green beans, or fresh peas – definitely a springtime treat.
Fiddleheads are abundant in the maritime provinces of Canada in springtime, being rarer to find out here in the prairies where we live. I was thrilled to find a source for fiddleheads right here in Alberta! Through a small Facebook ad, I found a farmer from northern Alberta (Blackwood Farms Honey) who has a large stand of ostrich ferns growing wild on his property on the banks of the Peace River. I was able to meet him in a parking lot in Spruce Grove as he came through the area with his coolers full of freshly foraged fiddleheads. What a treat – the best parking lot business deal I’ve ever participated in! I gleefully cradled those bags of bright green treasures and rushed them home to turn them into delectable spring deliciousness for us to enjoy.
The only caveat with enjoying fiddleheads is that they need to be cooked first; they should never be eaten raw, as they can be slightly toxic and can cause gastrointestinal upset if not cooked well enough. Cooking neutralizes any negative effects and makes them perfectly safe to eat. The best way to make sure fiddleheads are cooked well enough is to blanche them in boiling water first, then use them to add to a variety of dishes: toss them in salads, in pasta dishes, risottos, stir-fries, omelets, or simply sauté them in butter. Fiddleheads can be substituted in any recipes that call for asparagus, green beans, or broccoli.
How to Prepare Fiddleheads
Make sure to choose fiddleheads that are bright green and firm, without much brown on them. They will have some bits of brown papery covering that needs to be mostly brushed off. The remainder will come off during blanching.
Fiddleheads need to be well washed in multiple changes of water, until the water runs clear. Only wash the fiddleheads immediately before cooking them. If you rinse them ahead of time and store them, the extra moisture will make them spoil faster, as they are very delicate. After rinsing, trim off any brown ends or discoloured or blemished parts.
Different sources will say that fiddleheads need to be blanched for up to 15 minutes, but in chatting with the farmer who sold them to me, he said they only ever blanche them for 3 minutes. I opted for 5 minutes of total blanching time, as I found several sources that proclaimed that enough time to make them safe to eat. After blanching and cooling them, the fiddleheads can be stored in the refrigerator for up to 5 days and used in a variety of dishes, or they can be well drained, then laid in a single layer on parchment paper lined baking sheets and frozen until solid, then packed into zip top freezer bags and frozen for up to 6 months.
Blanching not only neutralizes any slightly toxic effects and possible bitterness, but it also brings out the ferns’ sweetness and makes the fiddleheads delightfully bright and tender-crisp.
Best with Butter Sauce
In the maritimes, where fiddlehead mania is at its peak every spring, these fern shoots are generally eaten simply steamed, boiled, or sautéed, and served with butter and a splash of vinegar. They really are a simple joy to eat that way. But if you want to elevate your fiddleheads just a bit, and treat them like the rare specialty they are, try serving them with this silky butter sauce. The sauce doesn’t mask their light grassy flavour in any way; rather, enhances and accents the ferns’ sweetness.
This butter sauce is a simplified variation of the classic French sauce, Beurre Blanc. A traditional Beurre Blanc (white butter) would have no cream and would contain twice the amount of butter as the version I’m sharing below. Adding the bit of cream makes the sauce much simpler to make, less likely to split. Its main ingredients are white wine, white wine vinegar, cream, and butter, and it tastes divine: light but rich, slightly tangy but slightly sweet, and insanely, decadently buttery.
The Creamy Butter Sauce is a great basic sauce to have in your repertoire. It’s also amazing on other vegetables simply steamed or sautéed, or drizzle it over salmon, any tender white fish, shellfish, or chicken, to turn them into something special. It’s tempting to just eat this velvety sauce by the spoonful, but it’s rich lusciousness will turn an ordinary seafood or vegetable dish into elegant dinner party fare.
Fiddleheads for Breakfast?
I must tell you that I devoured one of the most glorious breakfasts of my life this week: a slice of toast piled high with a mound of reheated sautéed fiddleheads, a generous lashing of creamy butter sauce poured over it and pooling in the plate around it, salt, pepper, and a soft-poached egg fresh from the nest that morning set jauntily on top. I didn’t even think to take a photo as I didn’t realize how heavenly this combination would be. It was one of those eat-with-your-eyes-closed-while moaning-with-culinary-pleasure meals that only comes along rarely. I can’t wait to repeat it again next year.
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Kitchen Frau Notes: If using unsalted butter, add ¼ teaspoon salt when you add the white pepper. It’s important that the butter is very cold, in order to emulsify and stay creamy. If it is too warm, the sauce will split and the butter will separate into an oily layer.
If you don’t have a shallot, use finely minced onion plus a quarter of a small clove of garlic, also finely minced.
Fiddleheads with Creamy Butter Sauce
for the fiddleheads:
- 3 cups fiddlehead ferns
- 1 tablespoon butter
for the Butter Sauce:
- ½ cup (1 stick/115 gms) cold salted butter
- ¼ cup (60ml) white wine
- ¼ cup (60ml) white wine vinegar
- 2 tablespoons shallots, finely minced
- ¼ cup (60ml) heavy cream
- pinch of white pepper
Prepare the Fiddleheads: Rinse the fiddlehead ferns in multiple changes of water (at least three) until no more dirt comes out of them, and drain them. Trim off any browned ends or damaged parts.
Set a large pot of water on to boil. When it comes to a boil, drop in the fiddleheads and start timing 5 minutes. Leave the heat set on high and boil them uncovered. Prepare a large bowl of ice cold water. When the 5 minutes is up, scoop out the fiddleheads with a slotted spoon or spider and dump them into the cold water to stop their cooking instantly and keep their bright colour. Once cooled, drain them well, shaking the colander to remove as much water as possible. The fiddleheads can be stored in the refrigerator at this point, for up to 5 days, or prepared to serve immediately.
Heat the 1 tablespoon of butter in a skillet and add the fiddleheads. Sauté them over medium heat for 3 to 5 minutes, until they are heated through and any excess moisture has cooked off. Keep them warm while you make the butter sauce.
Make the Butter Sauce: Cut the butter into 12 pats and set them onto a small plate in the fridge to keep cold while you start the sauce.
Combine the white wine, wine vinegar, and minced shallots in a small saucepan. Cook over medium-high heat until most of the liquid has evaporated and it’s reduced to about 1 tablespoon.
Add the heavy cream and once it comes to a boil, add two pats of the butter. Whisking constantly, keep adding another pat just before the previous pat has melted, so there is always some unmelted butter in the sauce. If it is melting too quickly, lift the pot off the heat for a few seconds at a time. Keep whisking. It will only take a few minutes. The sauce should turn slightly thick and silky and be a soft opaque lemon colour. Continue adding butter and whisking until the butter is used up.
Strain the sauce through a sieve and press on the solids to extract as much sauce as possible. Add the pinch of white pepper.
Serve immediately over the sautéed fiddlheads, or over your vegetable or meat of choice (lovely over steamed asparagus, green beans, broccoli, salmon, chicken, etc.)
If you wish to make the sauce a bit ahead of time, it can be kept warm for up to an hour by putting the sauce into a glass measuring cup and setting the cup into a pot containing a couple inches of hot water (making sure not to get water into the sauce). Set the pot on a stove burner turned to its lowest setting, and keep the sauce warm until serving time.
Makes about ½ cup (120ml) of butter sauce, serving 4.
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