This spring I wanted to try foraging for fiddleheads, the curled new fern shoots that I have heard are delicious. You can get them from specialty markets in the spring but I think it would be more fun to pick them myself. I mushroom hunt with my family frequently starting when I was in elementary school so foraging is not a foreign idea to me. I searched the internet for tips and guidelines for collecting fiddleheads hoping to find some advice. I found lots of recipes for sautéed fiddleheads but I needed guidelines for identifying edible plants. Most of the information I found was about ferns local to the East coast and central United States. When searching specifically about Pacific Northwest ferns, most sites directed me to one book: Fat of the Land by Langdon Cook. After picking the book up from the library and reading it I can see why it is so highly recommended. Cook’s enthusiasm for foraging permeates his writing and infects the reader with grandiose ideas of collecting and cooking nature’s goodies.
Cook provides stories and great descriptions of local Seattleites and Pacific North-westerners who enjoy searching for tasty goodies in our unique environment. He is originally from the East coast but has gone native here and now fully understands our uniquely diverse, colorful, and eccentric culture. Cook describes some of his foraging partners like an English professor who harpoons lingcod in Shilshole Bay and a gourmet cook who combs a graveyard on the far side of the mountains for mushrooms.
His chapter on fiddleheads confirms what I had been reading online. There is a bit of a controversy over eating the fern buds. Fiddleheads are toxic if not cooked and bracken ferns have shown to be carcinogenic in mice. But foragers argue as to whether it is a significant risk or not. Cook falls on the side of trying them anyway; they are delicious. But he does recommend that “Everyone should try just a little of a wild edible the first time; you don’t know if you’re allergic…” Identifying the correct type of fern is also important. “…Some species are reported mildly toxic, including dizziness, nausea, and lethargy in those who eat them.”The best way is to locate and identify lady ferns or bracken ferns the summer before. Then it can be certain you have the right type of fern.
The best part of the book is recipes at the end of each chapter featuring the foraged item: razor clam chowder, cream of stinging nettle soup and dandelion muffins for example. I was sure to photocopy the recipes for later use. I am especially excited for the dandelion muffins. It just sounds like they would be pretty to look at as well as delicious. Cook also has a blog that he updates frequently with new foraging ideas and recipes.
Once I got around to finishing the book, fiddlehead season had passed. I am wary now to try them without properly identifying the plants. Perhaps I can pick some up at a farmers market and see if I like them enough. And although I did not forge out to collect fiddleheads this year, I have some great ideas for projects and some lady ferns to identify this summer.