It can take hours of work to gather a such a large pile, but having fresh picked ingredients for a fiddlehead fern recipe is worth the effort. Photo by Glenn Fleishman.

You know spring has sprung when, from central Alaska southward, vibrant-green shepherd’s crooks erupt in forests, along streams, and in moist, shady bottomlands. These are “fiddleheads”—young, tender, coils of shield, lady, and ostrich fern, which resemble the bird’s plume tipped by a lacy violin scroll.

Stalks pop up clustered among patches of dead fronds early in May from the root spread of one perennial plant. Mature June and July stands may hide tasty new offspring, though late harvests yield less. To pick sustainably, crop less than half of the Martian tentacles in any one place by cutting each at the stem base. They peak quickly and must be reaped before they unfurl or sprout leaves from the top. Tightly wound fiddleheads, unlike Alaskans emerging so from winter, are a boon. A quick squeeze tests their firmness. (That of the fiddleheads.) The brown, papery husks are rubbed off, and shoots washed in cold water repeatedly, and then cooked at least 15 minutes to destroy a vitamin-depleting enzyme—boiling, by leaching the tannins, mellows their bitterness. Cleaning 12 pints of fiddleheads took one gourmet five hours, and some therefore renounce this fat of the land. For others, husking with a friend while sipping rosé on the porch sweetens the chore. 

Don’t let the lack of liquor or willing friends deter you. First-timers find the dollar-size veggie croziers to be not only “dang beautiful” but also “surprisingly delicious.” Asparagus-like, with an okra texture, they’re an excellent source of vitamins A and C, potassium, fiber, iron, and the good kind of fatty acids, yet low in sodium. Fiddleheads shine in stir-fries, omelets and casseroles, chilled in salads, creamed, marinated, on pizzas, or as tempura. Some people pickle and can them for great Bloody Marys or winter greens.

“We got a little tired of them in the restaurant,” because of the cleaning, says Nancy DeCherney, co-author of The Fiddlehead Cookbook and co-founder of the (now shuttered) eponymous Juneau venue that served them. Still, “Gathering them does make a pleasant afternoon outside and in these days of too many Zoom meetings, a good activity.” 

Just remember, bears might be foraging, too. Come spring, hungry for fresh fare like other locals, they don’t fiddle around.

Fiddlehead Hot Giardiniera

A Chicago-style relish for hotdogs and franks. Recipe by Lauralye Miko, Juneau

Ingredients

1 celery stalk, chopped

1 red bell pepper, chopped 

1 carrot, chopped

4 jalapenos

2-3 Serrano peppers

2 cups cauliflower      
florets, chopped 

3 cups cleaned 

fiddleheads

½ cup salt

1 cup white vinegar

5-6 garlic cloves, minced

2 tsp dried oregano

1 tsp red pepper flakes

1 cup olive oil

pimento-stuffed olives (optional)

Directions

Toss celery, carrot, jalapeños, Serranos, cauliflower, bell pepper, and fiddleheads in a large bowl with salt. Add enough cold water to cover the mix. Cover bowl and refrigerate overnight.  

Drain the veggies from the salt brine, and rinse and drain them twice more.  

In a nonreactive bowl, add vinegar, garlic, oregano, and pepper flakes. Slowly add olive oil, whisking until mixture is blended. Add drained veggies and toss to coat. If you’re adding olives, add them here. 

Refrigerate 1-3 days in a covered container to let flavors mingle. The mix can be stored in mason jars in the refrigerator for up to 3 weeks.

Author

Michael Engelhard is the author of Ice Bear: The Cultural History of an Arctic Icon. An inveterate cabin dweller, he lives in Fairbanks and works as a wilderness guide. Read more of his work at michaelengelhard.com and read Ice Bear here.

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