What's in Season: Fiddlehead What?

It’s April: prime time for rain clouds and locavores alike. In a contest of extremes, I’d go with the locavores. Soon we’ll be deluging greenmarkets—the fanatics among us, forests and woods—baskets at the ready, eyes peeled for mushrooms, ramps, and those coiled jade delicacies, fiddlehead ferns.

Fiddleheads, the edible fronds of the ostrich fern, so named for their resemblance to violin scrolls, debut in New England for a short tease (often only two or three weeks), provoking fits of culinary panting. Trim their stems, rinse well, then steam or sauté them about 10 minutes with butter, garlic, maybe a little bacon, until tender. They’ll taste a bit like asparagus or artichoke, a whisper of grassiness and impending spring.

But, like the season, fiddleheads can be fickle. Undercook them and the bitterness remains. Overcook them, and they’ll turn mealy. You want them firm, with a little bite, but tender. At Thyme (3605 Crompond Rd, Yorktown Heights 914-788-8700; thymerestaurant.net), Co-chef Neil Ferguson gets it right every time. His trick is blanching them first. “Fiddleheads need to be prepared properly,” he says. “Blanching removes the acrid bitterness.” After refreshing them in ice water, it’s onto the sauté pan for a quick romp with bacon lardons, some morels, chives, or perhaps tarragon. Or, if there’s some Comté cheese in the larder, he’ll simmer the blanched fiddleheads in garlic-infused cream, fold in the cheese with a dusting of nutmeg, transfer it all to a gratin dish, and bake to a burbling gold. His executive chef, Thyme owner Tom Costello, likes them with a tomato ragout, or a sweet drizzle of balsamic reduction.

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“Like morels, peas, and fava beans,” Ferguson says, “fiddleheads represent spring in all its glory.” Pair his sauté or gratin with an herb-roasted leg of baby spring lamb, and you’ve got something glorious indeed.

Fiddlehead Fern Gratin
(Courtesy of Tom Costello and Neil Ferguson, Thyme)
(Serves 4)

1 lb fiddlehead ferns 1 cup heavy cream 1 cup milk 1 oz butter 1 clove garlic 1 sprig thyme 1 bay leaf pinch nutmeg 4 oz Comté cheese, grated (Gruyère may be substituted) salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste

Preheat oven to 350º F. Wash ferns well, then blanch in boiling salted water for eight to 10 minutes. Drain and refresh in ice water bath, drain again and reserve.

Combine cream, milk, butter, garlic, thyme, bay leaf, and nutmeg in stainless steel saucepan. Bring to a boil, then remove from heat and infuse for 10 minutes. Strain into a large bowl, stir in 2 oz of the grated cheese. Discard aromatics.

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Stir blanched fiddleheads into cream mixture; season to taste with salt and pepper. Spoon mixture into an ovenproof dish large enough to hold fiddleheads in a single layer. Sprinkle with remaining cheese.

Bake for 20 to 25 minutes, until gratin is bubbling and golden.

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