MONROE — One could argue that quintessentially Maine things fall into one of two categories. The first includes those icons that someone from away could easily identify, namely lobsters and blueberries.
The second category is more expansive, encompassing coon cats, Moxie, red snapper hot dogs and plenty more that this writer hasn’t learned of yet, himself coming from away.
Into that second group also falls fiddleheads, an emerald green fern whose fronds resemble the curled ends of fiddles for a short period in spring. Before they’re fully grown, those fronds can be harvested and blanched, then steamed and served like any green.
Or if you’re like Monroe writer L.E. Barrett, they can be served in a lobster chowder, or blended into ice cream, or stacked atop a pizza.
Those are just three of the 125 ways Barrett has devised for cooking fiddleheads. He’s included those recipes in “Fiddlemainia,” a book he recently wrote and published with artwork by photographer Lin Diket.
“It’s not about eating bark,” Barrett said, referring to the fear some diners may have of bland, natural foods. “It’s about trying to incorporate wild edibles into cuisines that you’d normally eat: Asian, Spanish or your normal cheeseburgers would go well with a fiddlehead, and a lot of people are trying to do that.”
Now’s the time to try. In this region of Maine, Barrett said, the harvest season started in the first week of May and will last another two or three weeks. In islands off the state’s northern coast, they can surface into June.
The greens can be bought at local markets or grocery stores. In nature, they can be found growing in sandy soil, normally alongside streams, Barrett said.
It was in such a setting where the idea for “Fiddlemainia” took seed four years ago. Barrett, a Hallowell native, was out walking on his five-acre Monroe property when he stumbled on an old woman stooped and picking fiddleheads.
“She said, ‘You know, I’m stealing your fiddleheads,’” Barrett recalled. “And I said, ‘Yeah, I know.’”
Barrett was OK with that, and as he walked away, the woman mentioned she knew dozens of recipes for preparing fiddleheads.
As he only knew one or two, that got Barrett thinking. Then he ran into Diket a couple days later, who showed him photos he’d recently taken of flowers in Florida.
Those two encounters gave Barrett the idea for “Fiddlemainia,” which is the first of four books he’s writing on cooking wild plants from Maine, including ones on blueberries and dandelions (which are very healthy).
In addition to recipes, “Fiddlemainia” also details some of the history, health benefits and other information about the young ferns. He also provides instruction and cautionary notes about harvesting them.
For example, they shouldn’t be confused with the bracken, which can make you sick. Barrett also warns would-be harvesters to blanch any fiddleheads for a couple minutes before serving. They should be plunged in boiling water for at least two to four minutes (eight to ten if going into salad), then dipped in cold water.
So as to not exhaust the resource and ensure that the plants grow again next year, he also recommends leaving a couple fronds on every fern.
Fiddlehead Ice Cream
36 fiddleheads, cleaned, trimmed and blanched
2 cups 20 percent cream, divided
2 cups 40 percent cream
1 cup granulated sugar
1 tsp. vanilla
Place fiddleheads in a pot and boil (5 minutes), then drain all liquid. Place fiddleheads and 1 cup of 20 percent cream in a blender, low speed, until the mixture is smooth. Place fiddlehead cream mixture in small pot and heat at a low temperature (20 minutes). Cool mixture in refrigerator (20 minutes). Put fiddlehead mixture and other ingredients in frozen ice cream maker (use device instructions). Put fiddlehead ice cream in a container and freeze until solid.
— Recipe courtesy of L.E. Barrett
“Fiddlemainia” can be purchased at Sherman’s Maine Books & Stationery in Bar Harbor, among other Maine bookstores and markets. It also can be ordered on Amazon.com. As part of the Bar Harbor Food Festival May 16, author L.E. Barrett will provide a fiddlehead cooking demonstration at 11 a.m. at Jesup Memorial Library.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that eating ostrich ferns will make you sick. It’s brackens, which are hairy and rounded without a groove in the middle, that will make you sick.