For the last few years I have lived in big cities, a medium-sized one and then a huge one. But these days, my home base is in the countryside, amongst the tall trees and the salty air of the Pacific Northwest. Returning home to the area that I grew up in has come with many experiences, both new and old. Picking wild food is one of them.
I was well aware that I could find food to eat in the forest when I was little. I was that kid at summer camp who would shock all my fellow campers by plucking a salal berry from the bush and popping it in my mouth, only later to be appalled when I became a counselor and we were told that even if we were 100% certain that a plant was edible, we were not to advocate for eating them. The risk of misjudgment and potential sickness – or worse – was far too great. And so instead of teaching children about all of the wild foods that called the forest home, we served them Sysco hamburgers with slices of American cheese. We live in a strange world.
In the past few years of my city life, a craving to reconnect with the natural world went into overdrive, and when wild foods like nettles would show up at the local market, I would buy them in abundance. Now, they’re in my backyard, and it feels like the ultimate luxury.
But I have been gone, and my foraging sensibilities are far from full grown. Searching for wild food is an ongoing, educational process. Do I pick this or that? So I have started with what I know, nettles being the easy one. When fiddleheads started popping up however, I couldn’t contain myself. My eyes were constantly on the forest floor, trying to spot the small curls popping from the ground.
Fortunately I’ve got a couple of local friends who are far more well versed on foraging wild foods than I am, the kind of people you can text photos to for confirmation that you are not going to eat the wrong thing. In this case, yes, the abundance of fiddleheads that I had found were in fact Lady fern fiddleheads and I could feel good about consuming them. (Some ferns are more palatable than others). They were a little on the leafy side, but hey, still worth using.
There are a variety of things that you can do with fiddleheads, from adding to a sauté to throwing in a bowl of pasta, but however you plan on preparing them, make sure that you get all the fuzzy exterior off first. This will help the overall taste. Then bring water with a little salt in it to a boil. When it’s at a rolling boil, add the fiddleheads and leave them in for about 15 minutes. You don’t want to be eating fiddleheads raw; they contain thiaminase, an enzyme which breaks down thiamine, otherwise known as Vitamin B. Fortunately, cooking them gets rid of this enzyme and makes them safe to eat.
I turned mine into a pesto, a fun way to put fiddleheads and any spring greens you have on hand to good use. I have made this both with spinach and sorrel, which adds for an additional punchy flavor. Feel free to experiment with other greens you may have lying around. The pesto makes for the perfect base to an easy spring lunch, inspired by my Scandinavian roots: a piece of rye crispbread spread with fiddlehead pesto and topped with medium-boiled eggs, from local chickens or ducks, of course.
1/2 cup (2.5 ounces, 70 grams) fiddleheads, cleaned and boiled
1 large handful of spinach (or other greens of your choice)
1/4 cup (1.25 ounces, 35 grams) sunflower seeds
1 clove garlic
1/2 teaspoon lemon juice
A pinch of salt and ground black pepper
2 tablespoons olive oil, plus more as needed
Clean and boil your fiddleheads.
Add the fiddleheads, spinach, sunflower seeds, garlic clove, lemon juice, salt and pepper to the food processor and pulse until everything is finely chopped. You may need to take scrape the sides of the food processor a few times with a spatula so that everything gets evenly chopped.
When everything is finely chopped and mixed together, add in the olive oil and mix until your desired consistency. Add additional olive oil as needed.
Store in a sealable container in the refrigerator.