Monday, May 2, 2011

Singing the Praises of Fiddlehead Ferns (and New England).

* * *

In the Words of Scarlet O'Hara: Oh Fiddle-dee-dee.

* * *
The whole "New England" thing has always kind of gone over my head.  I mean, I never refer to "New England."  I always just say "the east coast" when I talk about any state on, well, the east coast of the US.  I don't get the whole "Nantucket Reds" thing, I didn't grow up sailing or cheering for the Red Sox, and have always found the preppy boat-shoe / sweater-over-the-shoulders thing slightly nauseating.  It was always yadda yadda about the turning of the leaves in the fall, yakkity-yak on the idyllic summers on the Cape.  I just never got it.  Never had a particular inclination to get it.  In fact, I'm a little ashamed to say that it wasn't until 10 days ago as Matt and I made our trip to Portland for the first time that I was finally told that New England is strictly comprised of 6 specific states: Connecticut, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Vermont, and Maine.  And in that 4-hour drive from Connecticut, we went through 5 of them.  Historic highways, railroad bridges, vast forests, rugged coastline and broken industrial cities all stretching through a piece of land that once belonged to the King of England, was host to some of the most pivotal moments in the American Revolution, bred some of America's boldest and brightest, and is still a melting pot of proud ethnicity and deep-rooted wealth.

But I have to admit that now that I live in Portland, Maine (even just after a week), I kind of get it.  Ok, I get it!  I really do.  It has been so beautiful here in Portland the past few days, I can hardly contain myself.  Roman's birthday was perfect - sunny, dry, breezy and full of spring.  As you walk on the Old Port, you can smell the sea in the air, hear the seagulls above you, and watch the ships and ferries go by.  You're a quick drive to the beach no matter what, and the seafood can't get any fresher than it does here.  The forests are astounding, the houses are charming, the people are kind, and the culture is alive and thriving.  As if I didn't need more reasons to love it here, today I had a random but welcome run-in with one of my long-time culinary curiosities that really drove home the whole "New England" thing: fiddlehead ferns.

I was driving back from grocery shopping, zooming down a street I though I'd never been down before, when suddenly, a few streets from one of the oldest, richest neighborhoods in Portland, I spot two men (in Boston Red Sox hats), a table and two giant cardboard signs propped by the side of the road that read "FIDDLEHEADS" in large black marker.  I immediately made a u-turn and went back, despite the two men looking less than savory.  As soon as I walked up, one of them called me "young lady," so all was forgiven. :)  They sold me a 1lb bag of freshly picked fiddlehead ferns for $5.00.  They had foraged them the day before and had several other such bags sitting on the table, waiting to be bought.  They told me to rinse them then either boil or sautee them and wished me a good day ahead.  I went home with a giant smile on my face because this was a quintessentially New England moment.  The beauty of small cities with an inseparable juxtaposition of working class and old money.  The greatness of foragers still existing in urban and suburban America, and taking the time and effort to handpick little ferns two or three weeks out of the year, then sell them on the side of the road for next to nothing (these ferns go for $20.00/lb on the West Coast!).  The delicious satisfaction of a region in the US that exemplifies a perfect blend of old and new, of rural and urban, of industry and sophistication, of smoke stacks and light houses, pizza and ports, fiddleheads and lobsters.  

I have to say, I like it here.

* * *

New England's Finest Fiddles

* * *

The first time I ever saw fiddlehead ferns was probably about 6 years ago in New York at Agata & Valentina, and they were too expensive for me to be willing to experiment with back then.  I didn't know then that they are a delicacy unique to New England (and especially prized in Maine and New Hampshire), and that their season is as frail and brief as they are, only lasting 2-3 weeks in May every year.  If the ferns, actually part of a plant called an Ostrich Fern, start to uncoil the plant becomes inedible giving foragers a 2-day window in which to pick them once they grow.  And they are only foraged, which only adds to the charm and appeal as far as I'm concerned.  All this means fiddleheads are scarce, coveted, and picked solely by hand and solely by people who know exactly where to look for them year after year.

I wanted to cook mine in butter and garlic but when I went to do it I noticed I'd used my entire stick of butter on dinner from two nights ago: steamed Maine Lobster with brown butter.  More on that later.  So I was forced to cook my fiddleheads in olive oil and garlic, but they were delicious.  I might have to go back to the little stand tomorrow, if the two guys are still there. 

I would recommend boiling them for 3-4 minutes in salted water, then placing them in an ice bath, and finally sauteeing.  Or you can sautee directly if you're into the whole brevity thing. :)  Either way, fiddleheads are a taste of real New England: woodsy and at-times elusive, but ever-so charming.

Amusing tips on foraging for and preserving Fiddlhead Ferns, from
"You’ll know a patch when you find it because these fiddleheads are not hairy, like most others, and they have a deep groove in the stem like a stalk of celery. Leave several from each plant to grow to mature fern leaves, or the patch will disappear forever and you will go to Hell where you will eat blueberry poptart for all of eternity."
Follow Me on Pinterest

No comments:

Post a Comment