How to safely cook fiddleheads

‘Tis the season for fiddleheads – the croziers, or tightly curled heads of the ostrich fern.

How to safety cook fiddleheads, however, apparently depends on where you live and the advice your government provides.

Fiddleheads have been linked to several outbreaks of food poisoning, which in all cases was traced back to the consumption of raw or undercooked fiddleheads.

In 1994, 20 people who ate at a restaurant in New York were struck down with a gastrointestinal ailment that included nausea and vomiting, while a handful of people in Vancouver, Victoria and Banff reported similar illnesses that year. In one case all 14 people had eaten fiddleheads sauteed for only two minutes.

In 2006, Health Canada recommended "boiling fiddleheads for at least 15 minutes or steaming them for 10 to 12 minutes," as well as washing the ferns in several changes of cold water.

The Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention says it is important to thoroughly wash all fiddleheads after harvesting and to thoroughly cook them by boiling for 10 minutes or steaming for 20 minutes.

Dr. Dora Anne Mills, director of the MeCDC, said,

"These precautions should always be taken before consuming any fiddleheads, but they may be especially important in areas affected by the recent flooding in the St. John River Valley. We are really talking about common-sense precautions. Flood waters can become contaminated with bacteria and with fuel or other chemicals. If you are harvesting in the flood zone, avoid any fiddleheads that are obviously contaminated and take the time to wash all fiddleheads carefully. After that, do what is always recommended in preparing fiddleheads: boil them for 10 minutes or steam them for at least 20 minutes.”

I have no idea why the recommendations are different, but it certainly fits a pattern of confusing consumers. To paraphrase Joe Pesci in the movie, My Cousin Vinny, maybe the laws of physics and boiling water are different in Canada and the U.S.