What to do with fiddleheads for once and for all
As the fiddlehead season peaks, the same old questions resurface.. Clients hungry for the first local greens are keen, but at the same time half frightened, wanting to know how to cook them all over again; the MAPAQ is at our door worried about intoxications..
Although there never has been an incident with our fiddleheads, it appears that every spring in recent years, there have been several cases of ‘food poisoning’ Quebec wide– we’re talking stomach pain here, not death by the way. Probably because a few fools ate a whack of unwashed, raw specimens, perhaps even old and/or from a polluted source, if they were even from the correct fern in the first place..
Sadly, many people are scared of fiddleheads for no good reason. It seems that the government campaign warning about a fiddlehead ‘toxin’ has been effective. In a way, maybe that is a good thing because there are customers who show up at our booth and pop raw fiddleheads into their mouths off the counter, or want to pick their own without a clue, not to mention the growing number of raw-foodists who are determined to eat them raw despite our warnings. Nonetheless, I like to think that most people are not them, and a touch wiser.
The thing is we all agree that uncooked fiddleheads are a bad idea. Toxin or not, there is something in there that makes them hard to digest in the raw state, that animals in the wild are aware of too (they don’t eat them), and besides, they simply do not taste delicious as is or aldente anyway.
It is also important to note that ‘we’ in the New World, have been eating cooked fiddleheads for a long time without a problem – tis a natural, local, traditional rite of spring in Quebec (as well as in New Brunswick, Ontario..). François’ family has been picking in the same sites and eating the same crop that supplies our market stand for over 50 years; François has been harvesting them and selling them for 25 years. And I repeat, never an issue.
After a wave of sore stomachs somewhere in Quebec in the spring of 1999 (60 cases), Govt warnings about a toxin became prevalent. All for a toxin that no one, not even the govt agency seems to be able to identify.
I couldn’t help but wonder about this unidentified ‘toxin’, and how it has eluded us and so many others for decades. Was it really proper to the fiddlehead or in the water? Could the few cases of poisoning have been due to a single source, age or improper storage? I needed to know, but no one has ever been able to answer my questions completely to this day.
A couple of years ago, I went really digging, govt. documents, newspaper articles, scientific journals, to find all sources leading in circles. I even stumbled upon a Santé Canada document that stated there was no toxin in fiddleheads, ha.
Upon consultation with plant scientists at the University of Guelph (the reference wrt food science & agriculture), it seemed likely that the fear might be more bacterial than a toxin persay. Which makes sense given that they grow in dirt and water. And that would explain the govt directives to boil for an extended amount of time; in the case of a ‘toxin’ useless. So, as I suspected, the few cases of intoxication were probably due to a contaminated source eaten raw. But of course, that is too complicated to explain, much easier to issue severe warnings until they figure it out. And without the likes of me pressuring them, I’m not even sure they’re working on figuring it out, preferring to enforce fear and a 15-20 min cooking regimen.
A scientist explained to me how they come up with these numbers in the first place given any threat, ie completely theoretical. They are ultra conservative since they use the most resilient enzyme and the least acid vegetable (not even actual fiddleheads say) for their tests. For eg. at 120C (steam), after 3 min, 10% remains; at 5 min, zero. After 5 min even at 100C, there is not much chance of anything, but to be safe, might as well say 10-15 or why not 20 min, just in case there is the worst ever bacteria in given foodstuff.
Which is fine I suppose; I understand that the government has to protect every person (stupid or not, fragile constitution or not) from every bug and fiddlehead out there (quality or not, fresh or not, from any source, polluted or not). But for us, this is very frustrating on principle; especially that it directly affects our business. After all, this is a super nutritious local vegetable with a long tradition, that is readily accessible and not dangerous at all if fresh and properly cooked. Certainly much safer in the big picture than all the sterile non-food crap coming out of the industrial system that clears all the government lights but is slowly making everyone sick and allergic to nature. Don’t forget that a bowl of berries or a plate of asparagus or a spinach salad might give you a belly ache and send you running to the bathroom if you daily feed off processed food and never eat fruit and vegetables, but then perhaps a cleanse was in order, but I digress.
In particular, we know where our fiddleheads come from, taking care of every detail from A to Z – picking only tightly curled, young specimens barely breaking ground, washing them thoroughly, storing them properly, selling fresh quality, offering up cooking instructions and everything. We have a solid record and reputation. Yet, we still have to defend ourselves year after year.
Meanwhile in supermarkets and via big distributors, there are loads of sketchy fiddleheads being dumped at a low price from un traceable sources, often obviously picked at an advanced stage (easier picking, ie cheaper), and old from being kept too long (from picking time through distribution to package).. I imagine this is the source of any sore stomachs, paired with a handful of mis-informed dopes hitting a bad batch, then not washing them and eating them insufficiently cooked.
Go to any restaurant, or to any home that has had fiddleheads on the menu for generations. No one is boiling them for 15 minutes. They turn to mush in 15 minutes. 5 minutes in boiling water is plenty if you have good fiddleheads and wash them first. Most often, they are given a second cooking anyway, be it pickling or stewing or for a sauté.
I know of one good recipe where they are overcooked and still yummy, from the Bas du Fleuve. Simmered in a salt lard onion broth for 20 minutes, there are left to sit overnight and reheated. Pale green and mushy, they are not aesthetically pleasing this way but delicious, reminiscent of slow cooked collard greens..
However, especially in spring when the body craves it, it is nice to be able to retain some small resemblance of green and crunch along with a thorough cooking. For detailed instructions, see below to see how we tell people to cook fiddleheads..
It all comes down to washing them and boiling in lots of salted water until they are cooked through, period. Depending on the quantity, the size of your pot and water, this could be 5-10 min, 5 if your water doesn’t stop boiling. With good fiddleheads properly flushed, your water should be reddish after, not black. I used to stand by a double blanch for less time, but this was with a restaurant setting in mind when you want to optimize color and crunch while ensuring sufficient water flushing and minimal cooking time. But it’s completely unnecessary! It just allows for a touch more texture and colour with equivalent exposure to heat and water. My perfectionism while wanting to cover all bases and please the MAPAQ ended up biting me in the butt because this procedure was propagated and I feel that it ultimately made people even more afraid. I would later hear foodies say, ‘oh don’t you know you need to cook them twice’ and I would inwardly groan; I even heard it from a government official once. Geez, I started it - shut up. I take it all back – just source well, and cook them for a few minutes in lots of water for god’s sake.
They are delicious sautéed with garlic afterwards, with a splash of tamari and lemon, salt and pepper. The oriental treatment with garlic, ginger, chilli, and sesame is winner too. Better yet with bacon, shallots and a touch of cider/sherry vinegar and meat jus. With potatoes and braised meat, in an omelette or with anchovies, pasta and tomato sauce, the options are endless..
The season is in full swing here, about to wind down, but is only getting going in the Outaouais, still weeks away in the Gaspesie.. So there are Quebec fiddleheads to be had for the next month or more for sure..
No need to be afraid. Just don’t be stupid, and Enjoy.
JS Cooking Instructions below..
Wash well and Blanch before adding to a dish: Use lots of salted water, cook for 5 minutes after returning to a boil (10-15 min. total)
*Or Boil twice for less
to optimize colour and texture - Add to boiling, salted water for 2-3 minutes. Change the water. Repeat. Refresh in ice water.
and then sauté
or add to any preparation..
To serve hot :
Sweat with butter or olive oil, salt, pepper, garlic or seasonings of choice (tamari, chili pepper, ginger, citrus zest, bacon, herbs, ie. dill, chives..
To serve cold :
Dress with vinaigrette, or to composed salads, pasta or potato salad, greens.
*The important thing is that the fiddleheads are of good quality from a traceable source,
that they are flushed with sufficient waterand fully cooked through.
Les Jardins Sauvages
17 Chemin Martin, St-Roch de l’Achigan