Fiddleheads have a relatively short 2-3 week period in April or May to harvest. Once they get too big they become very bitter and no longer good to eat. Like most ferns their habitat tends to be moist and wooded areas and along streams and river banks. They are native to the eastern coast of the US and are easily found from Maine to Florida. Harvesting is done by hand so if you want to purchase them they are quite pricey when found in a retail outlet ($20 a pound or more) and are never as good in taste because of the age factor.
When growing in the wild, the fiddleheads generally grow in clusters of 3-12 fronds and look like the picture shown. They are tightly coiled, bright green and have a sort of hairy flaky chaff on the outside of them. It is light brown in color. Fiddleheads are picked by snapping or cutting of the top of the coiled head. They are best picked with a 2 inch stem or there about and should be no taller than 6 or so inches. At this stage in growth the stem is delicious. As the fern grows, the stem becomes tough and stringy. The earlier and younger the shoot, the more tender the morsels you collect. Fiddleheads that have just emerged are the most tender, but newly emerging fiddleheads are more difficult to clean. Picking these young ferns when they are dry and several inches from the ground greatly reduces the amount of cleaning time.
There are other species of fern out there that have chaff on them that is reddish-purple or white, these are not fiddle heads so avoid them. If ever in doubt with any wild edible, find someone knowledgeable and have them show you in person what to look for. I try and keep the wild edibles I share simple and basic because I myself am self taught and know how confusing learning wild edibles can be with out a hands on mentor.
After harvesting your ferns the chaff needs to be removed. I generally soak them in cold water for a few minutes and then scrape the chaff off with a small knife. With only two of us here this is a quick and simple process although if I was preparing a huge mess of them it would be quite a chore. Some folks just wait til they age a bit and the chaff dries and flakes off. I personally find that the fresher the produce the better tasting, even when it comes to wild edibles.
Fiddleheads must be fully cooked to maintain safety. Because of their habitat many have been flooded by water from the streams in early spring, there is a chance of bacteria or pollutants from the water. For safety and taste reasons after cleaning, cook your fiddle heads for10 minutes in boiling water. They should be firm and hold their shape, yet tender to the bite. From this point on the possibilities for them is endless.
Most of the time, I just add them to our stir fries and mixed veggie dishes. They make a nice addition to any dish when served in that way. They are also good when sauteed up with some onion , bacon, a touch of vinegar and spices. Tonight I am using them in a pasta dish with a very simple topping of bacon, onion, fresh tomatoes, creole spices and cheese.
Here are a few sites that have many recipes of all sorts for fiddleheads, so go on pick ya some, you are sure to find something that perks your taste buds up.