Fiddleheads are the season’s star shoots

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LEXINGTON — Deep green, earthy spirals wound as tight as coils, fiddleheads burst into the spring produce bin for a few weeks. They’re shoots, and they’re at their best when tightly coiled. They grow into graceful ostrich ferns — but alas, the pretty ferns are no longer edible. Fiddleheads’ spiral shape gives rise to their name — they look like the tip of a violin.

At Wilson Farms here, fiddleheads share space with bundles of green and white asparagus. But they sit unnoticed. Produce manager Tony Casieri says, ”People who know what they are come looking for them, but most just seem intrigued. They have no idea how to cook them.”

They do look different than anything else at the farm stand, and, unlike asparagus, they’re not around long enough for people to become interested. Also, fiddleheads still have their paperlike scales intact.

This is what happened to Wilson staff member Paul Vlasos on a fishing trip in Maine years ago: ”We were picking fiddleheads by the side of the road with a local guy. We had about 5 pounds, and I was wondering how we were going to get off all the brown, papery scales,” he says. ”My friend took us back to his garage, opened up an old washing machine, threw the fiddleheads in, and turned on the spin cycle.” There was no water in the machine, and the scales flew off. ”Now that’s Yankee ingenuity for you,” says Vlasos. The fishermen cooked the little coils and tossed them with lemon juice and cider vinegar.

Unless you know what you’re doing, however, picking fiddleheads in the wild isn’t advised; some fern varieties are not edible.

As for removing the papery scales at home, that is the tedious part. But the cooking couldn’t be simpler. Steaming, boiling, or sauteing in butter are the recommended methods. Inspired by Vlasos’s story, I tried the centrifugal force of my salad spinner to dislodge the scales. What did the job just as well was a short soak followed by a few rinses.

The flavor of a fiddlehead is clean and subtle, reminiscent of both asparagus and green beans, so a light treatment is best. In Japan, fiddleheads (called warabi) are highly prized. A few are artfully placed in a small dish, and a simple dressing of soy sauce and wasabi is drizzled from a spoon.

Fresh local fiddlehead ferns are available at farmstands and farmers’ markets through early June.

Fiddlehead ferns with wasabi soy sauce dressing
Wasabi is the green mustard paste served with sushi. It is sold in tubes at Asian grocers and some supermarkets. Serves 2.

1 1/2 cups fiddleheads (scant 1/2 pound)
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 -1 teaspoon wasabi paste
2 teaspoons water
2 tablespoons light soy sauce

1. In a large bowl in the sink, rinse the fiddleheads under the tap to dislodge the brown scales. Drain and repeat several times. Trim the ends off the ferns (last piece on the coils).
2. Bring a large saucepan of salted water to a boil. Add the fiddleheads and cook for 8 minutes or until they are tender when pierced with the tip of a knife. Drain them into a colander and set them aside.
3. In a small bowl, mix 1/2 teaspoon wasabi paste and water until smooth. Whisk in the soy sauce. Add more wasabi, if you like. 4. Transfer the fiddleheads to a bowl and spoon the dressing over them. Toss gently and serve warm or at room temperature.

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