When I was small, maybe 5 or 6, my mother instituted the rule that every Friday night was New Vegetable Night. My sister, having attained the grand old age of 10, quickly gave her own designation to Friday nights. She called it "sleeping over at other peoples' houses night". The childhood burden of new and strange vegetables fell squarely on my shoulders. In all, I think it was probably a wise move on my mother's part. I can only recall one vegetable, Brussels sprouts, my dislike for which even New Vegetable Night could not cure. Despite that, when presented with a plateful of them by Jennifer Leffler's mum at a sleepover I attended a few short years later, I knew would not kill me and so I ate them uncomplainingly. And graciously, I thought, for an 8-year old.
My mother still swears that New Vegetable Night was my fault anyway. She claims that, when I was still very small, and we lived in a remote northern Canadian town, we were invited to the only town doctor's house for supper. Being invited to their house for supper, I gather, was to have "arrived" (inasmuch as one could ever "arrive") in Lac LaRonge. As we lived quite far north (and it was the early 1970's) fresh vegetables were very expensive and hard to come by, especially during the winter. So, on this momentous occasion of being invited to Dr. and Mrs. Weins' house for supper, I embarrassed my mother by clutching a broccoli bunch in my fat pink paw and loudly demanding, "what are these little green trees? I don't eat little green trees." Precocious for a 2 year old, I know. But my mother swears that this is what I said. She also swears it is the reason why New Vegetable Night was all my fault.
One Friday night, the new vegetable that appeared on my plate was fiddleheads.
Fiddleheads, the tightly furled shoot of the Ostrich Fern first discovered by the Maliseet and Mi'kMaq tribes in Eastern Canada, are a springtime delicacy from Virginia all the way up to Eastern Canada. Until tonight, the last time I had eaten one was on a New Vegetable Night in 1977. Not that I didn't like them, I just hadn't seen them in the store. So when I saw them at Save-On a couple of days ago, I declared New Vegetable Night in my house. Even though I don't have kids. Other than Cakes, that is.
They taste just how I remember them - like a very mild artichoke or asparagus, only slightly wilder and muskier and more mushroomy than that. They smell and taste of the earth in the same way that fresh scallops taste of the ocean.
Fiddleheads' texture is surprisingly crunchy, even after cooking for a fair amount of time. I parboiled mine less than the recommended ten minutes (apparently there was a food-borne-illness scare in British Columbia in 1990 purportedly resulting from undercooked fiddleheads - I'm hedging my bets - I hate overcooked vegetables!) and then pan fried them in butter, shredded lemon peel, garlic and white wine. They were crunchy and earthy and green tasting and paired well with the noodle-y pappardelle, crispy, smoky prosciutto and salty reggiano, although next time I might leave off the reggiano and add more lemon.
- One punnet (about 300 grams) Fresh fiddleheads
- 1/4 cup butter
- 1 large clove garlic, minced
- 1/4 tsp zested lemon peel
- juice of half a lemon
- 1/4 cup white wine
- salt and pepper
- enough pasta or noodles of your choice (my choice is almost always pappardelle) to feed two
- 4 slices Prosciutto, fried until crispy and crumbled
Choose tight dark green fiddleheads that are not mushy or too moist. Use them within two days after purchase. If you have picked them yourself (taking care to ensure they are Ostrich fern, other kinds are highly poisonous) they can be stored, well wrapped in plastic, for 4 or 5 days in the vegetable crisper.
Rinse fiddleheads under cold running water, rubbing gently to remove most of the brownish feathery bits. If the cut ends have got a bit of brown on them, trim them.
While your pasta is cooking, boil the fiddleheads in salted water for recommended time, usually about 10 minutes. I only boiled for 4 minutes, but I am an inherently risky chef and I might die from this. If I don't post again after tonight, you'll know the undercooked fiddleheads killed me.
While fiddleheads are boiling, melt butter in a frying pan. Cook and stir garlic until soft and slightly browned. Add lemon peel, lemon juice, wine and salt and pepper.
Remove fiddleheads from heat, strain, rinse again under cold water and then dry. I found that my salad spinner worked very wekk for this.
Toss fiddleheads into frying pan and cook and stir through the butter for about two minutes or until any excess moisture has evaporated and the butter and wine mixture has reduced enough so that it is no longer watery but thick enough to coat the pasta thinly.
Strain cooked pasta and toss in pan with fiddleheads.
Dish up into bowls and sprinkle with crumbled prosciutto. You can add crumbled reggiano if you like, I think it would be better without it.