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Fiddle Faddle Fiddleheads

May 6, 2009


A wonderful old-fashioned food (OK, it’s an oldways food) is in markets right now, making its annual month-long appearance.  It’s Fiddlehead Ferns, an elegant delicacy and a favorite from childhood.

They’re immature ferns, and a bit odd-looking – each fiddlehead is a tightly-coiled spiral about the size of a 50-cent piece, with its stalk wrapped tightly around miniature fronds like a tire around a rim.  If not harvested at this stage, each fiddlehead would mature into a tall, feathery fern.

Buy a pound of fiddleheads, and when ready to cook them, rinse and then turn them out on a countertop or cutting board.  Trim off any bruised stem ends, and pick out any wilted fiddleheads and any remaining papery brown stem sheaths.

Bring 3 quarts of water to a boil in a large pot, add a level teaspoon of salt, then add the fiddleheads all at once.  Cook for 3 minutes after the water comes back to a boil, then empty the fiddleheads into a colander in the sink to drain.

To serve, put the drained fiddleheads into a serving bowl, add half a cup of extra virgin olive oil (or 6 pats of butter), a level teaspoon of sea salt, a level tablespoon of freshly-ground black pepper, then turn gently with a large serving spoon until the fiddleheads are evenly coated, and serve.    A teaspoon of fresh-squeezed lemon juice is an optional taste brightener.

For our post-Kentucky Derby dinner we had fiddleheads with whole-grain orzo and a luscious grilled sirloin steak.  The little-known the fiddleheads were a winner with the guests, just as the unknown 50-1 Mine That Bird came from nowhere to win the 2009 Kentucky Derby!


One Comment leave one →
  1. Alan Majka permalink
    May 5, 2010 4:59 pm

    From CDC MMWR:

    Ostrich Fern Poisoning — New York and Western Canada, 1994
    Fiddleheads (crosiers) of the ostrich fern (Matteuccia struthiopteris) are a seasonal delicacy harvested commercially in the northeastern United States and in coastal provinces of Canada. Although some common ferns may be poisonous or carcinogenic, this species has been considered to be nontoxic. However, in May 1994, outbreaks of food poisoning were associated with eating raw or lightly cooked fiddlehead ferns in New York and western Canada. This report summarizes the investigations of these outbreaks. Steuben County, New York
    On May 19, 1994, a restaurant in Steuben County, New York, reported to the New York State Department of Health (NYSDOH) gastrointestinal illness among a group of 20 persons who had eaten at the restaurant the preceding night. Patrons complained of nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea shortly after eating, and some attributed their illness to the fiddlehead ferns served with their entree. The restaurant received similar complaints from a group of 22 persons who ate fiddlehead ferns on May 6 but had not previously reported illness.
    During May 25-28, NYSDOH conducted a telephone survey of persons who had eaten at the restaurant on days fiddlehead ferns were served (May 6, 7, and 18). A case was defined as vomiting or diarrhea within 12 hours of eating at the restaurant. Of the 56 restaurant patrons who could be contacted, 31 (55%) met the case definition. Of these, 30 (97%) reported diarrhea; 22 (71%), nausea; 10 (32%), vomiting; and eight (26%), abdominal cramps. The mean incubation period was 6.7 hours (range: 0.5-11.5 hours). Symptoms lasted a mean of 1.3 days (range: 3 hours-3 days). Cases occurred among 30 (67%) of 45 persons who ate fiddlehead ferns, compared with one of 11 persons who did not (relative risk {RR}=7.3; 95% confidence interval {CI}=1.1-48.1). The risk for illness was greater for those who ate a full order of ferns (i.e., 8-10 fiddleheads) (RR=8.8; 95% CI=1.4-57.5) than for those who ate a half order or only tasted the ferns (RR=2.2; 95% CI=0.2-20.7). No other restaurant food was associated with illness. A stool sample obtained from one patient was negative for bacterial pathogens.
    The ferns had been harvested from two alluvial sites in Chemung County. Both sites abutted corn fields and were approximately three miles from any industry or sewage treatment plants. The harvester delivered the ferns to the restaurant washed, dehusked, and packed in plastic food storage bags. Before being served, the ferns were removed from a refrigerator and sauteed for 2 minutes in butter, garlic, salt, and pepper. No deficiencies in food handling or storage were identified. Cultures of uncooked ferns were negative for Staphylococcus aureus and Bacillus cereus. Standard tests for nitrogen/phosphorous and organochlorine pesticides were negative for chemical contamination.
    On May 17, the harvester had sold ferns to a second restaurant in the area; at this restaurant, ferns were boiled for 10 minutes before they were sauteed with butter and lemon. Of six patrons who ate ferns at this restaurant on May 18, none reported illness.
    Western Canada
    On May 17, 1994, three cases of gastrointestinal illness linked to meals served at a restaurant in Banff, Alberta, were reported by the Banff National Park Health Unit to the Health Protection Branch (HPB) of Health Canada (1). A HPB investigation confirmed illness in 17 persons who had eaten at one of eight franchises of the restaurant chain in British Columbia, Alberta, or Saskatchewan during May 10-May 16. The only food eaten by all ill persons was fiddlehead ferns. Fourteen persons had eaten ferns that had been sauteed for 2 minutes with mushrooms, onions, butter, salt, and pepper; three persons had consumed fiddlehead fern soup.
    During May 23-June 2, 1994, three persons contacted the HPB complaining of nausea and diarrhea after eating fiddlehead ferns purchased at Vancouver and Victoria markets. One person became ill after eating raw fiddleheads. The other two became ill after eating ferns cooked in a microwave for 7-8 minutes on low power.
    On June 10, 1994, a restaurant in British Columbia reported illness among members of three groups who had eaten at the restaurant during May 28-29, 1994. Fiddlehead ferns blanched for 2 minutes in boiling water had been served with all entrees. Of the 21 persons in these groups, illness occurred among 13 (87%) of 15 persons who ate ferns but in no persons who did not eat ferns (RR=undefined; p less than 0.01).
    Of the 33 ill persons interviewed, all reported illness within 12 hours of eating ferns (mean: 3.2 hours). Twenty-eight (85%) persons reported diarrhea; 22 (67%), nausea; 11 (33%), abdominal cramps; six (18%), vomiting; and five (15%), headache. In 29 cases, symptoms lasted less than 24 hours. Stool cultures from two ill persons were negative for bacterial pathogens.
    A single commercial fern harvester supplied the restaurant chain. Experienced harvesters collected 3-4-inch high ferns during May 1-May 16 on federal land in British Columbia where ferns have been collected for 14 years. The site is approximately 10 miles from any development and industry and had not been sprayed with pesticides or recently flooded. The ferns were inspected to remove debris, packed in open crates, and refrigerated until delivered to purchasers.
    Cooked and uncooked samples of ferns from the restaurant and raw ferns collected by the commercial harvester in British Columbia were negative for B. cereus, S. aureus, aerobic and anaerobic spore-forming bacteria, and staphylococcal toxin. There was no evidence of acute illness in mice and rats fed raw and cooked fiddlehead ferns.
    Because of concerns that the ferns might contain a heat-labile toxin, Health Canada issued a warning advising that fiddleheads be boiled for 15 minutes or steamed for 10-12 minutes before eating.
    Reported by: D Bills, L Arias, P Constantine, T Root, M Shayegani, PhD, K Aldous, G Birkhead, MD, D Morse, MD, State Epidemiologist, New York State Dept of Health; R Mitchell, New York State Biologic Survey. P Morgan, T Morton, F Iverson, PhD, K Catherwood, L Hill, B Long, A McCarville, C Ng, R Smith, K Odermatt, K Reynolds, Health Protection Br, Health Canada; J Raven, Banff National Park Health Unit, Alberta; M Marchenski, Capital Regional District Health Svcs, Victoria, British Columbia; D Armstrong, S Lively, P Brewster, T Mahler, British Columbia Ministry of Health, Canada. Div of Field Epidemiology, Epidemiology Program Office, CDC.
    Editorial Note
    Editorial Note: The ostrich fern was a spring vegetable for American Indians of eastern North America and became part of the regular diet of settlers to New Brunswick in the late 1700s (2). Until recently, it was consumed primarily in the Maritime Provinces of Canada and in the northeastern United States. The ferns are available commercially either canned or frozen, but since the early 1980s, farmers’ markets and supermarket chains have sold fresh ferns in season.
    None of the fiddlehead ferns of eastern and central North America previously have been reported to be poisonous (3). Although some ferns may be carcinogenic (4), the ostrich fern has been considered to be safe to eat either raw or cooked (5-9). One field guide indicates that wild greens may have laxative qualities and recommends boiling them and discarding the first water (8).
    In both outbreaks described in this report, the specific cause of illness was undetermined. Although the short incubation period suggests poisoning by a preformed toxin, there was no evidence of common bacterial toxins, such as S. aureus or B. cereus. Alternatively, the plants could have been contaminated by an undetected viral agent, although this possibility is unlikely because of the apparent short incubation period. Although the ostrich fern accumulates some heavy metals (9), the symptoms reported in these outbreaks were not characteristic of heavy metal poisoning, and it is unlikely that absorption of heavy metals occurred at two different sites.
    Because of the short incubation period and a lack of other plausible causes, the most likely cause of illness in each of these outbreaks was an unidentified toxin. Heating and boiling may either inactivate or leach the toxin from the plant. Fresh fiddlehead ferns only recently have become widely available in restaurants. In addition, many vegetables now are lightly cooked rather than steamed or boiled (10). In both outbreaks, the implicated ferns were either raw or lightly cooked (sauteed, parboiled, and microwaved). In a similar outbreak in British Columbia in 1990, eating lightly cooked fiddleheads was associated with gastrointestinal illness (P. Morgan, Health Canada, personal communication, 1994). Although a toxin has not been identified in the fiddleheads of the ostrich fern, the findings in this report suggest it may be prudent to cook fiddleheads thoroughly (e.g., boiling for 10 minutes) before eating.
    1. Morgan P, Morton T, Iverson F, et al. Ostrich fern poisoning — western Canada and New York, 1994. Canada Communicable Disease Report 1994;20 (in press).
    2. von Aderkas P. Economic history of ostrich fern, Matteuccia struthiopteris, the edible fiddlehead. Economic Botany 1984;38:14-
    4. Peterson LA. Edible wild plants. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1977.
    5. Caldwell ME, Brewer WR. Possible hazards of eating braken fern {Letter}. N Engl J Med 1980;303:164.
    6. Newberne PM. Biologic effects of plant toxins and aflatoxins in rats. J Natl Cancer Inst 1976;56:551-5.
    7. Brill S, Dean E. Identifying and harvesting edible and medicinal plants. New York: Hearst Books, 1994.
    8. Harris B. Eat the weeds. Barre, Massachusetts: Barre Publishers, 1968.
    9. Tomikel J. Edible wild plants of Pennsylvania and New York. Pittsburgh: Allegheny Press, 1973.
    10. Burns LV, Parker GH. Metal burdens in two species of fiddleheads growing near the ore smelters at Sudbury, Ontario, Canada. Bull Environ Contam Toxicol 1994;40:717-23.
    11. Beard J. The New James Beard. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1981.
    Disclaimer All MMWR HTML versions of articles are electronic conversions from ASCII text into HTML. This conversion may have resulted in character translation or format errors in the HTML version. Users should not rely on this HTML document, but are referred to the electronic PDF version and/or the original MMWR paper copy for the official text, figures, and tables. An original paper copy of this issue can be obtained from the Superintendent of Documents, U.S. Government Printing Office (GPO), Washington, DC 20402-9371; telephone: (202) 512-1800. Contact GPO for current prices.
    **Questions or messages regarding errors in formatting should be addressed to
    Page converted: 09/19/98

    This page last reviewed 5/2/01
    Information Update
    May 27, 2009
    For immediate release

    OTTAWA – Health Canada and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) are reminding Canadians that fresh fiddleheads should be properly cooked before being consumed.

    Fiddleheads are the curled, edible shoots of the ostrich fern. They are collected in the wild and sold as a seasonal vegetable in stores and outdoor markets.

    There have been cases of illnesses in Canada and the U.S. associated with eating fiddleheads. Scientists believe that the most likely cause for these illnesses is an unidentified natural toxin in fiddleheads.

    Fiddleheads should never be eaten raw. Health Canada and CFIA recommends that fresh fiddleheads be washed several times in fresh cold water. Remove as much of the brown husk as possible from the fiddleheads. They should then be cooked in boiling water for 15 minutes or steamed for 10 to 12 minutes until tender. Water used for boiling or steaming fiddleheads should be discarded as it may contain the toxin. Fiddleheads should also be boiled or steamed prior to sautéing, frying or baking.

    Symptoms of illness usually begin 30 minutes to 12 hours after eating raw or undercooked fiddleheads, and may include diarrhea, nausea, vomiting, abdominal cramps and headaches. Illness generally lasts less than 24 hours. This can result in dehydration, particularly among the elderly and in infants. There have been no reported cases of illness connected with eating fully cooked fiddleheads.

    Anyone experiencing the above symptoms after consuming fiddleheads should seek the advice of a health care professional and contact their local public health unit.

    It is estimated that there are approximately 11 million cases of food-related illnesses in Canada every year. Many of these illnesses could be prevented by following proper food handling and preparation techniques.

    For more information on food safety tips and fiddleheads, please visit:

    •Government of Canada’s Food Safety for Fiddleheads
    •Partnership for Consumer Food Safety Education’s Be Food Safe Canada Campaign

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