It’s May. They’re out, now. Go into the pine, oak and birch acid woodlands and scout about on the ground for those swan-necked shoots of Bracken fern (Pteridium aquilinium). They are graceful things, and when cut from their juicy base they smell of almond cream. Almonds, you say? Doesn’t that mean cyanide?
Well not exactly. It’s not cyanide, but bracken does contain an alkaloid called ptaloquiside. This is what makes it poisonous to livestock (and people) in its raw state. Before you chicken out and buy cucumber instead, it pays to remember that in Korea and other Asian countries, bracken fiddleheads (sometimes known as ‘warabi’) have been enjoyed and consumed for centuries as part of traditional dishes such as bibimbap. You can buy them dried in an Asian supermarket. In the US, picking fern fiddleheads is a big thing. Over there their preferred dish is made from Ostrich fern (Maleuccia sthruthiopteris) or Lady fern ( Athymium filix-femina) to name a few. There is bracken in the US, but with so many ferns to choose from, it’s not their favourite. Some of the ferns have higher levels of ptaloquiside than others, such as bracken.
The real point is in the preparation of the bracken fiddleheads. Pick only the ones that are still tightly curled. These will have much lower levels of ptaloquiside. One of my first introductions to foraging came when my father (who hadn’t read many foraging books or done much foraging homework) told us as children that bracken was edible and encouraged us to eat a mature, raw frond each. I vaguely remember having terrible diahorrea after this. (After this incident I read books instead of listening to my Dad!) Mature bracken fronds are much more toxic. And not very tasty.
Next, you want to soak them in a big pot of water and wash them thoroughly. Throw the water away and boil those fiddleheads in fresh water like no tommorrow for 10 to 15 minutes. Temperature fluctuations (ie boiling) denature the ptaloquiside and render it harmless. When I boiled mine, the water came away a deep brown, as if it had iron in it. Although this could just have been from my crappy old saucepan.
Why bother with this hassle and possibly get poisoned, huh?
Bracken fiddleheads contain Vitamins A, C, and iron, fibre, beta-carotene and the omega oils 3 and 6. Plus, even kidney beans, yes, those old faithful that you buy from Aldi in a 12p tin for your chilli con carne, contain a poison that can hospitalise you when in their raw state. I mean, the ones in the cans have already been cooked to get rid of the toxin, which is called phytohemagglutinin. But kidney beans that haven’t been cooked, and which are then dried, MUST be soaked then BOILED for at least 10 minutes. Many recipes suggest 30 minutes boiling. Even common potatoes contain a powerful and sometimes even lethal alkaloid called solanine when raw, and especially when they go green. There are many other examples I could name, from the wild too, such as the Cuckoopint (Arum Lily). So it’s more about the processing, and being aware of these risks rather than avoiding these foods completely. Having said that, fiddleheads are a seasonal treat, and it’s better to be safe than sorry and not to eat them too often.
I made Pickled Fiddleheads and a Korean ‘Gosari Namul’ inspired dish. Those boiled and stir fried had a tender texture, much like asparagus. Here are the recipes below.
You will need:
1 large cup fern fiddleheads (bracken)
1/2 cup apple cider vinegar
2 tbsp salt
1/2 cup water
1 tsp black peppercorns
1/2 tsp chilli flakes/chopped red chili
1 crushed garlic clove
Rock or sea salt.
1)Wash the fiddleheads well in a big bowl of water. Transfer to a saucepan, add 2 tbsp salt and boil the cup of fiddleheads with 2 litres of water for at least 10, if not 15, minutes.
2) While the fiddleheads are boiling, heat 1/2 cup of cider vinegar, 1/2 cup of water and 1 tsp of salt. Bring this to the boil. Find a sterile pickle jar (a glass jar that you have sterilised by boiling) and crush the garlic clove.
3) Put the clove and the other spices into the bottom of the jar.
4) Put the boiled fiddleheads in a colander and drain away the water. Rinse in cold water.
5) Decant them into the pickle jar and pour the pickling mixture over the top of them. Top up with more vinegar if there isn’t enough. Seal and boil the jar in a big pan for ten minutes if you are thinking to keep the fiddle pickle for more than a few months. This way, it should last a year.
GOSARI NAMUL INSPIRED STIR FRY
You will need:
1 cup fiddleheads
2 litres of water
1 clove crushed garlic
Soy sauce (1 tbsp)
Fish sauce (1 tbsp)
Half a lime
A handful of toasted pine nuts or sesame seeds
3 tbsp raisins
2 tbsp red sweetie drop pickled peppers
Sea salt to taste
OPTIONAL noodles and soup as sides.
- Follow all the same steps to prep the fiddleheads as above. make sure to boil them for 15 minutes.
- Toast the seeds or pine nuts in a dry pan.
- Take the seeds/nuts out. Add a few tbsp of sesame oil to the wok or pan and heat gently.
- Crush the garlic and add. Tip in the drained fiddleheads.
- Stir fry briskly for just a few minutes, adding the fish sauce, soy sauce (and chilli flakes if wanted.)
- Take off the heat and squeeze half a lime over the stir fry.
- Sprinkle the pine nuts or sesame seeds on top.
- Serve with rice noodles and laksa soup. Enjoy your wild food!