Fiddleheads, are the curled sprout of the Ostrich Fern, Matteucia struthiopteris, a delicate and delicious spring vegetable found in a variety of habitats across North America.
Look for fiddleheads as soon as the earliest spring flowers bloom and anywhere you've see ferns growing before. You want to harvest them while they still retain a curl at the top and like asparagus, use as much of the stem below the curl as you can collect. This part is often overlooked and is every bit as good as the top. The fiddleheads pictured left are actually a little small to harvest. Waiting until they are 6 to 10 inches tall will yield a lot more to eat. And when harvesting leave about half the fronds there to insure the survival of the fern.
There should be two types of fronds, the bright green infertile, food producing leaves (left) and the brown fertile spore producing fronds (below).
The stem rising up to the fiddlehead should have a groove in it similar to a celery stalk but narrower and the stem should be smooth and not furry.
The distinctive feature of the Ostrich Fern is the brown papery material you can see in the picture above. It may be stuck in the curl but shouldn't stick to the stem.
One nice thing about fiddleheads is that there are no deadly ferns but some can get you sick, some people may be allergic, and I would always cook them to avoid bacteria...salmonella, etc. which I've heard can be a problem.
Wash the fronds, or even soak in salted water to chase the bugs out and saute with butter. For a change try sauteing with chives and chive flowers or adding a little white wine and Dijon mustard.
Related: A Forager's Spring Feast
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