Growing up in Maine, April and May meant only one thing to us. A bounty of wildly foraged fiddleheads, cooked up by my grandfather on his pot belly stove, out in his garden shed...
Fiddleheads are actually the smooth unfurled heads of the ostrich fern ( edible plants, anyone?); they're encased in brown, papery husks and found growing along streams and creeks in certain, temperate states.
My granddad would handle the laborious cleaning duties, which involve removing the ornery brown chaff and snipping off the ends ( a la asparagus) before cooking.
Unlike your neurotic friends, the more tightly wound fiddleheads are, the better your experience will be ( in terms of tenderness). In a class by themselves, fiddleheads have an al dente crunch similar to asparagus with alternate moments of sweetness and bitterness that evoke mustard greens. Fiddlehead flavor errs on the side of an earthy savoriness with a fresh bite that lends itself well to boiling, sautéing, tossing with pasta or even stir frying.
The strong flavor of the plant goes well with savory elements that serve to balance like bacon, Parmesan cheese or soy sauce. Nuanced add-in's aside, I prefer my fiddleheads nearly naked.
Once fork-tender from steaming, I love to eat them with a simple balsamic drizzle or dipped in straight apple cider vinegar. However, when my Uncle John buys heaping bags of fiddleheads from local foragers / purveyors, it's time to consider additional options of pickling, freezing or marinating for cold salads -- anything I can do to extend my fiddlehead fever beyond its short season.
Do they taste better to me because they're hard to find or serve as a clear bite back to my childhood? Hard to say, but I hate to miss a single season.
If you can find the elusive fiddlehead, check out some Laura Calder's quick and easy Fiddlehead and Saffron Soup or get more recipes from the Portland Press Herald.