A fiddlehead, that small plant that grows in the Saint John River Valley in the spring, and which is said to be symbolic of the sun. — Alfred Bailey

The season of the fiddlehead is upon us. The tightly curled young tips of various ferns are called by this name because they resemble the coiled finial of a violin’s neck. In Asia and the Pacific region, many types of fiddleheads are eaten. Japanese varieties include warabi (bracken fern), zenmai (osmund or cinnamon fern) and kogomi (ostrich fern).

Once a staple food of Native American tribes and Hawaiian islanders, these wild vegetables, which taste similar to asparagus and okra, are enjoying something of a re-emergence in North America. Many people gather and cook the fiddleheads of ostrich ferns, and fern shoots are beginning to appear on menus and restaurant signboards — as well as in the names of some establishments. There are even fiddlehead festivals from Virginia to New Brunswick.

In Japan, fern shoots have never been out of style. All the fiddlehead varieties may be found abundantly in the wild — as well as at markets. Zenmai and kogomi are most likely to be found emerging in shaded wetlands or near riverbanks, while warabi thrives on drier hillside slopes. When gathering fiddleheads — as with any foraged vegetables — it is best to only gather what you will eat, and never more than a third of what you find to ensure they’ll still be there the following year. This is especially true with buds and shoots that haven’t reproduced yet.

Warabi, zenmai and kogomi may be prepared in many ways — in simmered dishes, dressed salads or even as tempura — but, as a rule, they are blanched first. Fresh kogomi, as well as zenmai, may be blanched quickly in salted boiling water with good results, but warabi should be steeped overnight to remove the bitterness. Washed warabi should be tossed in a small amount of baking soda — traditionally ash was used for this process — before boiling water is applied and the whole thing is left to cool naturally for use the following day.

Full-grown fern plants are never edible, and while delicious and seasonally essential, some fern shoots — specifically warabi — are said to be mildly poisonous, perhaps even carcinogenic. Research in Japan and the United States has produced evidence that bracken contains the chemical compound ptaquiloside, a potential carcinogen. At the same time, research has found that these fern shoots are a good source of vitamins C and A, beta carotene and iron. Rather than direct public consumption of the fern shoot, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration seems to be more concerned about cattle eating fatal amounts or passing the poison on to the public through milk and dairy products. The Japanese government, meanwhile, is quiet on the subject. By default, the public becomes the judge, and the overwhelming decision is, “let’s eat.”

I, for one, am not going to get excited over my intake of a few warabi shoots a year — I think I have a worse chance of survival standing on the smoking-section end of the train platform. If you are really concerned, however, there are always kogomi and zenmai, which are considered to be perfectly safe.

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Warabi gohan

As with any takikomi gohan (seasoned rice), cook your rice not with water but with dashi, flavored with a small amount of usukuchi shoyu (light soy sauce) and mirin. Prepare the warabi as described above, soaking overnight, or buy par-cooked warabi at the market. Any white fish may be used for flavor.

3 cups dashi
1 cup water
1 teaspoon usukuchi shoyu
1 teaspoon mirin
1 cup warabi, par-cooked and cut into 2-cm lengths
30 grams tai (or other white fish meat) steamed and broken into fine pieces
4 sprigs kinome

1) Wash rice as usual and drain. Place in rice cooker, add dashi, water, shoyu and mirin. Scatter warabi and cooked white fish over the top of the rice, and cook as normal.

2) When rice cooker is finished, wait 10 minutes, then fluff the rice, mixing well. Serve garnished with a sprig of kinome. Makes enough for four generous portions and onigiri for lunch the next day.

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