Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Snacking State-by-State: Maine II - Fiddle Me This, Fiddle Me That

Since Maine is a place where people have been eating seasonally long after it fell out of fashion, it stands to reason that the next dish I am preparing isn't typically made year round. But even fiddle head ferns, with the advent of flash freezing, should be easier to find year round. At least in those areas where people are familiar with them.

Official Name: State of Maine
State Nicknames: The Pine Tree State
Admission to the US: March 15, 1820 (#23)
Augusta (9th largest city)
Other Important Cities: Portland (largest); Lewiston (2nd largest); Bangor (3rd largest)
Northeast, New England; New England (US Census)
RAFT Nations: Maple Syrup; Clambake
Bordered by: New Hampshire (west); Québec (Canada) (northwest); New Brunswick (Canada) (north, northeast), Bay of Fundy (due east), Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Maine (southeast)
Official State Foods and Edible Things: wild blueberry (fruit); Maine wild blueberry pie (dessert); whoopie pie (treat); Moxie (soft drink); landlocked salmon (fish); moose (animal)
Some Famous & Typical Foods: New England foods; seafood, especially lobster, haddock, swordfish, salmon, clams; blueberries and apples; fiddle head ferns; whoopie pies; foods in common with southeastern Canada, including poutine

Being from Maryland, I have very little experience with fiddle head ferns. Family cookbooks in my part of the country do not feature fiddle heads because we just don't eat them here! The fiddle head is prepared like a leaf vegetable - though technically it isn't a vegetable but a fern. The fiddle head has historically been eaten in northern parts of France, Asia and North America. Today you can find fiddle heads eaten in Michigan's Upper Peninsula as well as in Québec, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. Within the US, upper New England is where the fiddle head is perhaps the most popular. The tender scrolls, which taste a little like asparagus, are fresh only during a short part of the year, and are harvested close to the ground before they open to release their spores.

I have had one and only one experience with fiddle heads in my lifetime prior to this. A few years ago I wrote about these strange things that I picked up at Eddie's of Roland Park on Charles Street. I stir-fried them, not realizing that one has to cook and cook and cook them before eating. One does not eat raw fiddle heads, because (as I found at the time) they will make you sick.

By all accounts, fiddle heads should be prepared simply. I am not finding many complicated recipes for these things, so why bother trying? In fact, the most complicated recipe that I found for fiddle heads comes from the website for Yankee Magazine - the "New England Website" - and all of the complexity goes into the sauce that you whisk up while the fiddle heads are cooking simply and all by themselves.

Recipe: Dijon Fiddleheads

For this simple recipe, you will need the following:

* fiddle head ferns (well duh). I did not pick these up recently, but got a half a pound a few months ago at Graul's when they were fresh, for about $8 or $9 per pound, and froze them. The process for freezing is simple. I followed this procedure from the University of Maine:

To freeze fiddleheads, clean them as you would for the table. Blanch a small amount at a time for two minutes in 4 to 6 cups of water. Cool and drain in cold water or in an ice water bath (half water and half ice). Pack into moisture- and vapor-proof containers and freeze. Thaw and boil for 10 minutes before serving. [El-Begearmi et al 2010]

The blanching of the fiddle heads

And the drying of the fiddle heads before freezing

* Dijon mustard, mayonnaise and lemon juice (had them all)
* yogurt (picked up a tub of plain nonfat yogurt at Giant for $2)
* scallions (99 cents a bunch)
* salt and pepper

With that last experience with fiddle heads coming back to mind, I wanted to take no chances, so I steamed the fiddle heads in the pan with a little bit of olive oil for about 15 minutes.

Now for the difficult part:

Wow, this is hard.

Whisk together the rest of the ingredients to make a sauce, and spoon it over the thoroughly cooked fiddle head ferns.

This time, the fiddle heads did not make me sick. That is because I cooked the hell out of 'em! So this time I could actually enjoy them. They do taste a little like asparagus, which I do not enjoy, but I liked these. The sauce is sharp and tangy, and goes very well with many vegetables. I recently ate this sauce over broccoli, and I can imagine it as a dressing for salad, though depending on the salad, you may have to thin it out a little bit: keep it thick for a potato salad, or thin it out for a garden salad.


Dojny, Brooke. Dishing Up Maine: 165 Recipes That Capture Authentic Down East Flavors. Storey Publishing: North Adams, MA, 2008.

Dojny, Brooke. The New England Clam Shack Cookbook. 2nd edition. Storey Publishing: North Adams, MA, 2008. Portions also available on Google Books.

El-Begearmi, Mahmoud. Facts on Fiddleheads (Bulletin #4198, Facts on Fiddleheads). Updated by Alfred Bushway, Beth Calder and David Fuller. Cooperative Extension Publications (University of Maine): Orona, ME, 1995 & 2010.

Greenlaw, Linda, and Martha Greenlaw. Recipes From a Very Small Island. Hyperion: New York, NY, 2005.

Yankee Magazine. "Dijon Fiddleheads". From "Weekly Wisdom", May 2002. Copyright 2011 Yankee Magazine.

Some information also obtained from Wikipedia's "Maine" page and other pages, and the Food Timeline State Foods link to "Maine".