Articles by Author
by: Susan Lutz
My neighbors and I are savoring the last tomatoes of the season. I’m starting to prepare for winter — and holiday meals — but I haven’t given up on fall’s bounty. This year I plan to serve roasted tomato and corn salad as a side dish for our Thanksgiving meal.
Beside a healthy, happy family and good friends, there’s little I’m more thankful for than ripe tomatoes and sweet white corn. It seems there’s nothing more American than these two dishes. Food historians have found evidence of very few foods that were served at the first Thanksgiving, but one of those foods was almost certainly corn. The corn would have been served as a grain in bread or porridge, not as the corn on the cob we eat today.
More from Zester Daily:
The reason this summer standard will be on my fall table is that I have white corn kernels packed in quart freezer bags stashed in my freezer. (I prefer white corn for its taste and texture, but I’ll admit that this may be a regional preference on my part. I know others who feel just as strongly about yellow corn.) I worked hard during August to ensure that I’d have sweet white corn awaiting me during the cold winter months for use in soups and side dishes like roasted tomato and corn salad. Even if blanching and freezing corn weren’t on your agenda this summer, you can enjoy this salad by using commercially frozen corn.
I can already hear the groans, so I will repeat: This salad is quite good using frozen corn. Freezing gets a bad rap. The naturally occurring sugars in sweet corn begin to turn to starch as soon as it’s picked. So to keep the corn sweeter, you must eat it or freeze it immediately. Commercially processed frozen vegetables, including corn, are processed just after picking, which yields a high quality product. When I run out of my own frozen corn, I buy frozen white sweet corn at Trader Joe’s. Although it’s not as good at the corn picked from my parents’ garden, it’s a solid substitute.
Pilgrims knew their tomatoes
The other summer favorite I intend to serve at Thanksgiving is tomatoes. Although tomatoes were not on the menu at the Thanksgiving meal shared by Pilgrims and Wampanoag Indians at Plymouth Colony in 1621, these beautiful fruits are American in origin. In the fascinating book “The Tomato in America,” Andrew F. Smith claims the wild tomato (Lycopersicon) originated in the coastal highland of western South America. It was in Central America that Mayans and other Mesoamericans first domesticated the tomato plant and began to eat its sweet and mildly acidic fruit.
Tomatoes are traditionally thought of as summer fare, but even in November some of my neighbors have tomatoes hanging from shriveling vines in their backyards. Depending on where you live, you may, too. I am not so lucky in my garden, but I am still able to find tomatoes at my farmers market.
At this point in the season, I concentrate on small tomatoes — especially cherry tomato varieties. I let them ripen for a few days on my counter if they’re not yet in their prime and roast them to concentrate their flavor. You can even make this recipe using hothouse-grown cherry tomatoes if you’re so inclined.
The final ingredients are fresh basil leaves, which are also traditionally summer fare, but which come from the potted basil plant I keep in my kitchen and feta cheese.
With a little preparation, the gleanings of the final harvest, and a good freezer, you can let summer make its last stand on your Thanksgiving table.
Roasted Tomato and Corn Salad
Prep time: 45 minutes
Cook time: 60 minutes
Total time: 1 hour, 45 minutes
Yield: Salad proportions are written for 1 to 2 servings, but can be scaled up to serve as many as you need. The amount of roasted tomatoes will probably be far greater than you’ll want for a single meal, unless it’s Thanksgiving. Extra roasted tomatoes are delicious when mixed with hot pasta and topped with Parmesan cheese.
Note: This recipe offers amounts that are closer to a general concept than a hard and fast rule. Feel free to adjust amounts based on the number of tomatoes you have and the number of people you want to serve. The tomatoes may be roasted a day or two ahead of time, making it possible for a quick “warm and toss” side dish for your Thanksgiving meal.
48 small cherry or Roma tomatoes
2 tablespoons plus an additional 1 tablespoon white balsamic vinegar
4 tablespoons olive oil
1 1/2 teaspoons fresh rosemary, finely chopped
1 1/2 to 2 teaspoons fresh thyme, finely chopped
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon black pepper
3/4 cup of frozen white corn, defrosted and drained of any excess liquid
5 basil leaves, julienned
2 tablespoons crumbled feta cheese
1. Preheat oven to 375 F.
2. Slice tomatoes in half (lengthwise if using Romas) and squeeze them gently to remove seeds.
3. Place seeded tomatoes in a medium bowl with vinegar, olive oil, rosemary, thyme, salt and pepper, and gently toss to thoroughly coat tomatoes.
4. Cover the bottom of a half-sheet pan (a 12-by-18-inch sheet pan with 1-inch sides) with aluminum foil, parchment paper, or Silpat.
5. Arrange tomatoes in a single layer on the sheet pan, cut side up.
6. Roast for 40 minutes at 375 F, then turn heat up to 400 degrees F and roast for an additional 10 minutes or until tomatoes are lightly caramelized.
7. Cool slightly before continuing to make salad. Or cool completely and place in refrigerator for 1 to 2 days until you’re ready to make the salad. Be sure to keep the resulting “juice” created in the roasting process. You will need it for the salad.
8. Place roasted tomatoes with their juice, defrosted corn, and vinegar in a medium skillet and cook over medium heat until mixture is warm throughout.
9. Gently pour mixture into a shallow bowl and top with basil and crumbled feta. Serve warm or at room temperature.
Main photo: Roasted Tomato and Corn Salad makes an unexpected Thanksgiving side dish. Credit: Susan Lutz
Row after row of tomatoes fairly glowed from the wooden folding tables: pointy tipped Pittman Valley Plums, pale yellow Dr. Carolyns, globe-shaped Nepals and hearty Cherokee Purples. It was a rainbow-like assortment of 100 varieties that bore little resemblance to the bland, identical crimson globes in the supermarket aisle. The crowd was enthusiastic as it tasted, shared, argued and traded information, specimens and seeds.
I was at Monticello’s Harvest Festival at the tomato tables of The Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, an organization at the forefront of the heritage seed movement. It’s been working with gardeners and seed savers for nearly 40 years to help preserve our garden and food heritage. And there’s possibly no better place to celebrate these goals than the home of Thomas Jefferson, America’s Founding Foodie.
Now in its eighth year, Monticello’s Harvest Festival was founded by Ira Wallace, one of the current owner/workers of Southern Exposure Seed Exchange. The festival, hosted by the Thomas Jefferson Foundation and Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, is a mixing bowl for chefs, gardeners and seed savers from across the country. For Wallace, it’s a community-building experience. Wallace admits that working in the sustainable food world can be tough sometimes, but that the festival is a great reminder of why she does what she does.
“Some days you feel really lonely and now I’ve found my tribe,” she said.
That tribe is a fascinating one that places passionate amateur and international experts on equal footing. At Monticello, I witnessed amateur seed savers discuss their process with internationally recognized authors. I came home with a vinegar mother — a starter for homemade vinegar — from one of America’s top winemakers.
Seed Exchange impact
For Wallace, that’s the point.
“This is for the people,” she said of the festival, “it’s not a scientific thing.” In fact, the location at Monticello only seems to highlight the ideals of Jefferson, who saw America’s future as a land of independent farmers. You may have only a suburban backyard or an urban window garden, but Wallace pointed out: “We want people to know that you don’t have to have a hybrid plant to have a good garden. Having some of your own seed gives people independence.”
More from Zester Daily:
Craig LeHullier is a great example of the impact of the Seed Exchange. A cheerful man with a graying beard, LeHullier is the father of the tomato variety called Cherokee Purple. In 1990, the Raleigh, N.C., native received an envelope of tomato seeds from a friend in Tennessee, with a note saying this was a single variety grown by a family in Tennessee for more than a century. They thought the tomatoes were originally grown by the Cherokee Indians before that. LeHullier planted the seeds and discovered an ugly purple monster that turned out to be one of the most delicious tomatoes he’d ever tasted.
LeHullier donated his seeds to the Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, and was given the honor of naming the variety. The Cherokee Purple has gone on to become a favorite across the United States. This is the seed-saving tribe at work: salvaging a nearly lost varietal before it disappears. As LeHullier said: “You gotta give it away so it never goes away.”
This is the essence of the Monticello Harvest Festival — and the thousands of festivals and seed swaps like it across the country. I witnessed Aaron Keefer, the culinary gardener at California’s French Laundry restaurant, in a passionate discussion about heirloom rice with Glenn Roberts. Roberts is the founder of Anson Mills, a South Carolina champion of traditional American grains and milling techniques.
Heirloom rice species are beginning to catch the attention of high-end sustainable restaurants. Roberts said there are important reasons to maintain grain diversity — and you can find it in Jefferson’s era.
Jefferson had been badgering the local farmers for decades, insisting that they expand their rice-planting beyond a single variety. In 1827, South Carolina rice farmers faced a blight — destroying nearly the entire rice crop of the young nation. Fortunately, smaller farmers had saved seeds from other rice species and Carolina rice culture endured. “Diversity was the answer to success,” Roberts said. “At the time, rice farmers failed to listen and suffered the consequences.”
There was a deep knowledge base at the festival, and endless passion for a variety of food-related topics. The excitement of the speakers as they met and interacted was infectious. Here the teachers and students exchanged roles in the blink of an eye. Festival speakers wandered through vendor stalls and attended the lectures of other speakers. Anyone with a handful of seeds was an expert — at least at growing that single plant.
My mouth watered when I bit into a juicy purple globe at the overflowing tomato table — a variety grown by Jefferson himself. Wallace sent me home with a packet of Prudens Purple seeds to grow my own. I was equally excited by the fat Cherokee Purple handed to me by LeHullier.
Back at home I shared it with my husband and saved the seeds in a small envelope. Wallace’s vision of independent gardeners has deep roots — and it’s working.
“The focus is sustainability and bringing new plants to American culture,” she said. “That’s what Jefferson did.”
Main photo: Ground zero for heritage seed savers: Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello. Credit: Susan Lutz
Across the lane from Napa Valley’s French Laundry restaurant lies a 3-acre farm that produces many of the fresh vegetables that have helped give the three-star restaurant its reputation as one of the best in the world.
Presiding over the rows of tomatoes, beets, melons, cucumbers and microgreens is culinary gardener Aaron Keefer. “We’re right across the street from the restaurant,” Keefer says, “and there’s this beautiful space that people are allowed to walk around. You can come up to the garden and see the stuff you’re actually eating. It’s funny how detached people are from what food actually is. People say, ‘Wow, I’ve never seen a potato grow before.’ ”
Keefer will preside over a different garden for a day when he gives the keynote address at the eighth annual Heritage Harvest Festival at Monticello in Charlottesville, Va. Keefer has become a fan of the president who has been called “The Founding Foodie,” and whose revitalized Revolutionary Garden at Monticello continues Thomas Jefferson’s legacy of raising heirloom fruits and vegetables. Keefer says his garden at The French Laundry mirrors Jefferson’s 2-acre garden at Monticello in many ways.
Keefer is always experimenting with new vegetable varieties in the garden and believes that vegetables — and the farmers who raise them — have become an exciting new resource for chefs. He explains, “I think that it’s coming around now and vegetables are really becoming the star of the flavor profiles on a plate. Every single starred restaurant out there — and really even other people — are using their relationships with farmers to get new inspiration and to create these new dishes for themselves.”
At home in the kitchen and the garden
Keefer is not only a resource for chefs, but also a liaison between the garden and the kitchen at The French Laundry. As a former chef, Keefer is uniquely qualified for his job as culinary gardener. As Keefer puts it, “I think it definitely helped me to be in the kitchen, even though it’s a completely different animal, but I think the thing to take home from having both careers is the communication. I know what’s going on on both sides of the equation, and I’m able to meld them together a little better.”
Eleanor Gould, Monticello’s curator of gardens, believes that The French Laundry “captures Jefferson’s spirit of innovation and experimentation.” The focus for both gardens is curiosity and passion.
Jefferson felt strongly about gardening. He grew 330 herb and vegetable varieties in his 1,000-foot-long garden terrace at Monticello and raised 170 varieties of fruit on his property. He encouraged others to garden with similar passion by hosting an annual contest with his neighbors to see who could harvest the first peas each spring. To further fuel his neighbors’ passion for gardening, he made sure one of them won the contest — even if his peas were the early champions of the season.
Keefer also shares Jefferson’s passion for the soil itself. In 1792 while serving as secretary of state in Philadelphia, Jefferson wrote a letter to his daughter Martha who was caring for Monticello’s garden in his absence. Jefferson told Martha that the only way to rid his garden of insect-infested plants was to cover it with a heavy coating of manure. When I mentioned Jefferson’s obsession with soil to Keefer, he echoed Jefferson’s sentiments, saying, “That’s what it’s all about. It’s all about the soil. You can give your plants chemical-based fertilizers and they will grow. Just like if you give your muscles steroids, they will grow. But it’s not the same.”
Keefer believes that the flavor in vegetables comes from the cycle of life in the soil. “When you take a handful or two of really truly rich organic soil, there will be millions of microorganisms and fungi in there. And those are the things that create the nutrition for the plant. They need the life in the soil to break it down for them so they can uptake it and somehow that creates a completely different flavor profile.”
The lesson of Jefferson
More from Zester Daily:
Jefferson didn’t have access to chemical-based nutrients — and chances are he wouldn’t have wanted them. Gabriele Rausse, director of gardens and grounds at the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, contends that what made Jefferson a truly revolutionary gardener was his belief that everyone should eat a diversified diet — a rare occurrence in 19th-century America. Now, America has begun to catch up with the founding farmer. Rausse says, “Today I look at the market and I think of what Jefferson had. I compare it to when I came to America 40 years ago, and I think finally they are listening to Jefferson. There are artichokes and chicory at the market now. People are starting to figure it out, but it took 200 years.”
Keefer’s revolutionary approach to gardening mixes the great traditions of heirloom farming techniques with the innovations of West Coast cuisine. Jefferson would have approved.
Main photo: A garden at Monticello. Credit: ©Thomas Jefferson Foundation at Monticello, photograph by Robert Llewellyn
The process of canning food can seem daunting at first. There’s a long list of equipment to assemble, complex instructions to follow, and the nagging feeling that if you do it wrong you may inadvertently spoil the fruits of your labor. I’ve done my fair share of canning, but after moving four times in the past five years, I’ve been repeatedly thrust back into beginner mode. Even for an experienced food preservationist, canning food in an unfamiliar kitchen is like being a newbie again.
With each move and each misplaced box of Mason jars, I have returned to basics. And nothing is more basic to a well-stocked kitchen than canning. I enter my new kitchen like all first-time canners — open to many possibilities as I begin to work in unfamiliar territory. With these tips and strategies you’ll stay organized and ready to preserve that bushel of fragrant peaches you couldn’t resist at your local farmers market.
5 best canning tricks for beginners
1. Create a canning center somewhere in your home.
Nothing will derail your project faster than an inability to find your tools. The location for your canning center doesn’t have to be large or fancy. It doesn’t even need to be in the kitchen. For the past year, I’ve kept my canning supplies in two giant plastic storage containers. One container corrals my canner, various small tools and my favorite canning recipes. The second container is full of canning jars stacked in their original storage flats or carefully wrapped in packing paper. Choose any color you like for your system. (My containers are bright blue — unlike any other storage container I own.) Just make sure that you can identify your canning supplies at 20 paces, even in a crowded storage room or basement.
2. Be a jar hoarder and an equipment re-gifter.
More from Zester Daily:
» Home canning renaissance
I hesitate to tell anyone to be a hoarder, but it is necessary to have a selection of jar sizes on hand if you want to can a variety of foods. Whether you’re new to canning or you’ve purged your home of jars before a cross-country move as I did, you’ll need to stock up on jars. Look at your favorite recipes — or recipes you want to try — and see what kind of jars (and how many) the recipe requires. I hoard every canning jar that comes my way. I also watch for sales at my local hardware store and big box stores. Canning jars start going on sale in late summer, especially in stores that consider canning a summer-only pursuit.
You can free up space for your jar stash by purging your home of unnecessary kitchen equipment. I get rid of any tool I haven’t used in two years and generously gift my friends and neighbors with tools I no longer use.
3. Test your equipment before you want to use it.
If you don’t use all the burners on your stove on a regular basis, check them to make sure they’re operational — especially the largest front burner. Check all glass canning jars for nicks and cracks. Be sure that metal rings are free of rust. It’s easy to break a thermometer or discover that the batteries have corroded inside your favorite kitchen timer since you last used it. The time to discover these problems is before you have a flat of ripe strawberries sitting on your kitchen counter. If the tools and jars look OK, wash them in hot soapy water (except electronic devices, of course) and let them dry thoroughly before starting your project.
4. Allow twice as much time as you think you need for the process.
It’s amazing how long it can take to read directions, especially for a beginner. Recipes are usually written for experienced cooks, and I’ve found that they often underestimate the time required. Read the amount of work time suggested by your recipe and double it. This will give you time to hunt down missing tools and still finish your project before you need to pick kids up from school or make dinner. If you finish early, congratulate yourself and use the time to make yourself a cup of tea after all your hard work. The dirty dishes can wait.
5. Conduct a test run.
I do a dry run of every canning project as I start to boil water in my canner. (This is yet another reason to double the time required for any recipe.) It may seem silly — especially if you’ve already read the directions once — but it’s easy to make mistakes or take the layout of your kitchen for granted while working under pressure. You won’t realize how far away your stove is from the closest available countertop until you try to unload a dozen boiling jars from a steaming canner. And potholders always seem to run away just as the timer goes off. A dry run will help you work out the kinks in your process and put the tools you need in the place you’ll need them.
Main photo: Using the best beginner canning tips yields homemade apple butter, sweet pickles, rose water marmalade, tomatoes and green beans, even on busy days in cramped kitchen quarters. Credit: Susan Lutz
In our house, asking for cherry pie means one thing: sour cherry pie. Just as there are “eating apples” and “cooking apples” that differ in acid level and sugar content, these same differences exist between cherries. Sweet cherries — like eating apples — are delicious raw. Sour cherries, with their higher acid level and lower sugar content, will make you pucker if you pop them into your mouth straight off the tree. While a pie made with sweet cherry varieties (such as Bing or Rainier) can be cloying, a pie made with Montmorency or North Star cherries has the perfect balance of sweet and sour.
It’s been my experience that people who say they don’t like cherry pie have never tasted a sour cherry pie. Surprisingly few folks know that sour cherries exist, partly because it’s hard to find sour cherries (Prunus cerasus) in many parts of the country. Sour cherries, also called tart cherries, are thought to have originated in the region between the Caspian and Black seas. Cherry trees still grow wild in that area, which includes part of Russia, Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan. The Greeks were cultivating sour cherries by 300 B.C. and the popularity of these tart cherries spread quickly to Italy and throughout Europe.
More from Zester Daily:
French colonists brought sour cherries to North America and by the mid-1600s cherries were plentiful in Virginia, my home state. Today most sour cherries commercially grown in the U.S. are produced along the Great Lakes in western Michigan, as well as in parts of Wisconsin, New York and Pennsylvania.
My love of cherry pies came early courtesy of my mother. She truly is famous for her pie baking skills — at least in her Virginia town where the local paper has profiled her and her homemade pies. She has forged some deep relationships with local sour cherry growers, who reserve gallons of cherries for her each summer. Even in a bad winter — like this last one, which killed off much of the cherry crop — my mother somehow leaves a supposedly “sold out” orchard with brimming boxes of cherries unavailable to the typical customer.
The harvest season for sour cherries is short — just a few weeks at the end of June and early July. This delicate fruit doesn’t ship or store well, so the first step in making pies for the rest of the year is preserving the fruit. Sour cherries may be canned in the traditional way, but it’s even easier to freeze them.
Although my mother often gets gallons of cherries at once, she freezes them in small batches. Seeding cherries is no small effort and it’s nice to spread the work out over a longer period of time. But the biggest advantage to this method is that you can freeze the precise amount of seeded and sugared cherries you need to make one pie. My mom actually prefers making pies from frozen cherries because it’s easier to control the amount of juice that goes into the pie filling if you separate the liquid from the cherries during the thawing process.
How to preserve sour cherries
To freeze, wash and seed four cups of cherries and place them into a large bowl. Sprinkle cherries with ½ cup of sugar, stir to combine, and let rest for 30 minutes. Freeze sugared cherries in 1.5-pint freezer containers or quart-sized freezer bags. Be sure to label your containers with contents and dates. Frozen cherries can be stored for up to one year. When taking frozen cherries out to thaw, put them in a colander with a bowl underneath to collect the juice.
If dealing with fresh sour cherries seems like too much work or sourcing them is an impossibility, you can often find jarred or canned sour cherries at Trader Joe’s or Middle Eastern markets. These canned sour cherries are usually Montmorency cherries and they’ll work fine. Just be sure that you’re not buying cherry pie filling, which is usually more sugary goop than cherries.
The hardest part of making a sour cherry pie is finding the cherries, but making cherry pie does require a certain amount of practice. The following recipe comes straight from my mother. I cannot guarantee that it will make you the focus of local newspaper profiles or will make your kitchen a place where neighbors drop in simply on the off-chance they can get some pie. But it will make you a convert to sour cherries.
Recipe courtesy Linda Lutz.
- 2 quarts sour cherries (fresh or frozen)
- 1 cup and 1 teaspoon granulated sugar
- 3 cups plus an additional 4 tablespoons all-purpose flour
- 1 teaspoon plus a pinch of salt
- 1 cup vegetable shortening
- 1 egg, beaten
- ⅓ cup plus 1 tablespoon cold water
- 1 tablespoon white vinegar
- ¼ teaspoon almond extract
- 1½ tablespoons butter
- Wash and seed cherries.
- Place about 4 cups fresh sour cherries into a medium bowl and add ½ cup of the sugar.
- Let sit for at least an hour to allow cherries to draw juice, stirring occasionally.
- To make pie dough, place 3 cups of the flour and 1 teaspoon salt into a large bowl.
- Measure 1 cup vegetable shortening and add in small pieces to flour mixture. Using the tips of your fingers, pinch the shortening into the flour mixture until the flour-covered fat balls are the size of slightly flattened peas.
- Beat one egg in a small bowl. Add water and vinegar to beaten egg and stir to combine.
- Slowly pour liquid into flour mixture, stirring gently with two fingers until all liquid is added. Have a light touch with dough to keep it flaky. Stir no more than is necessary to work dough into a ball.
- Divide dough into three parts and shape into flat rounds. Wrap dough in plastic wrap and refrigerate while you making pie filling.
- Drain cherries into a colander, reserving juice.
- In a saucepan, combine ½ cup sugar, 4 tablespoons of flour and a pinch of salt. Slowly stir in reserved juice.
- Cook mixture until it begins to thicken, then add cherries, almond extract, and 1½ tablespoons of butter. Cook over medium heat for 5 minutes.
- Remove cherry filling from the heat and let cool while preparing pie dough.
- Take two rounds of pie dough out of refrigerator and unwrap them.
- Working with one round at a time, roll pie dough out on flour covered pastry cloth or countertop.
- When the round of dough is about half its needed size, use fingers to pinch any cracked edges back together. Continue rolling dough until it’s large enough to cover your pie pan. Dough should be no more than ¼ inch thick, but a generous 1/8-inch thick is even better.
- Place first round of dough into bottom of pie pan and roll out the top crust using the same method.
- Pour cherry filling into pastry lined 9-inch pie pan. (My mother prefers a glass pie dish so she can see how the bottom of her crust is browning.) If filling appears too thick at this point, add a bit of water before pouring filling into pie crust.
- Cover with top crust and cut approximate10 half-inch long slits in the top crust.
- Sprinkle the top of the pie with 1 teaspoon of granulated sugar.
- Cover the outer edges of the pie crust with aluminum foil or a metal pie edge protector to keep the edges of the crust from burning.
- Bake at 425 F for 35 to 45 minutes or until golden brown. If top crust seems to be browning too quickly, lay a piece of aluminum foil over the top of the crust for the last 10 minutes. Let pie cool before serving.
You can use up to 1½ cups sugar, but we like cherries pies tart. Extra round of pie dough can be frozen for future use. Keep dough round in plastic wrap and place in a freezer-safe plastic bag. Pie dough will keep in the freezer for several months.
Main photo: Mom’s Sour Cherry Pie is always a crowd-pleaser. Credit: Susan Lutz
My first taste of fiddlehead ferns was in a lodge overlooking Mount McKinley in Alaska, so I was shocked to hear the word “fiddlehead” mentioned on a frigid early spring evening in Washington, D.C. While scanning the menu at Vidalia Restaurant, I overheard the waiter at the next table explain that the halibut special came with fiddlehead ferns. My husband says my head whipped around “faster than a speeding bullet.”
I hadn’t tasted fiddlehead ferns in a decade. I ordered the halibut just for the ferns, and the waiter was kind enough to request extra for me. When they arrived, the steamed ferns sat on the plate like a pile of resting green snails. But one bite sent me into heaven … and took me back 17 years to a trip to Alaska where I first tasted these bitter green morsels.
I discovered Mary Carey’s Fiddlehead Fern Farm in 1997, just outside Talkeetna. Carey was a local legend, known as a fearless pioneer and author of numerous books, including her memoir “Alaska, Not For A Woman!” As I strolled through the fern farm with Carey, she regaled me and my traveling companion with stories about how she had come to Alaska in the 1960s as a new widow. She began her big adventure at 49, driving a station wagon from Houston to Anchorage. In her 50s, she began homesteading 100 miles from the nearest road.
More from Zester Daily:
She encouraged us to be bold and live without fear. Then she recommended a pilot to fly us over Denali (Mount McKinley), the highest peak in North America. After an amazing flight, we stayed at Mary’s McKinley View Lodge and ate pickled fiddlehead ferns in rice pilaf. My love of fiddleheads was sealed with the first crunchy and slightly bitter bite.
I never imagined I would taste fiddlehead ferns in the nation’s capital, more than 4,000 miles away from the only fiddlehead fern farm I knew. I figured if Vidalia could get fiddlehead ferns, I could too.
My first call was to Mary Carey’s McKinley View Lodge to see whether they still served fiddleheads. I talked with Mary’s daughter Jean Richardson, who sadly reported that Carey passed away in 2004 at 91. Mary had always pickled the fiddleheads herself, and Richardson said, “that talent died with her.” I was going to have to find another recipe for pickled fiddleheads, if only in memory of Mary Carey. But without a Fiddlehead Fern Farm nearby, it wasn’t easy.
I made several calls and googled my fingers raw. It turns out that it’s hard to find fiddlehead ferns in grocery stores and farmers markets. The fiddlehead is truly a foraged food, and not all fiddleheads are the same. Most fiddleheads consumed in restaurants come from fronds of the ostrich fern (Matteuccia struthiopteris), the only variety approved for human consumption by the USDA. While many varieties of ferns grow wild in North America, many of them are toxic, so it’s vital to know what you’re doing before foraging for fiddleheads. I realized I wasn’t experienced enough to do that.
I eventually discovered Dan Donahue of Agora Farms and stalked his stall at Washington D.C.’s Eastern Market until fiddleheads arrived. Donahue gets his fiddleheads from a group of Native Americans in Maine who harvest wild fiddleheads. But spring came late this year, so the fiddleheads took longer than usual to appear at Dan’s stall. When they did, I scored a big baggie filled with clumps of dark green curlicues that resemble mollusks even more when they’re raw.
The problem was, I wasn’t sure what to do with them.
Finding fellow fiddleheads
Luckily, fiddleheads inspire almost cult-like devotion and Donahue put me in touch with fellow fiddlehead fan Jonathan Bardzik, who demonstrates fiddlehead fern pickling at Eastern Market. Bardzik and I discussed our mutual love of fiddleheads, especially the pickled variety. Asked what he loves about this little known treat, Bardzik explained that fiddleheads are one of the last truly seasonal foods. The season for finding ostrich ferns in their edible “fiddlehead” stage is extremely brief, only a few weeks at best and a single week in Alaska.
When you find them, you have to move fast. Preparing fiddleheads requires setting all other tasks aside to take advantage of their brief period of freshness, a good reminder of what’s important in life.
Bardzik shared his recipe for pickled fiddlehead ferns. This recipe is certainly different from the pickled fiddleheads I first ate at Mary Carey’s Fiddlehead Fern Farm, but they are lovely in their own way. I used half my stash for this. I blanched and froze the rest following guidelines from the University of Maine’s Cooperative Extension since I still want to try to replicate Mary Carey’s recipe for pickled fiddlehead ferns.
Then a wild thought occurred to me: Could I have my own Fiddlehead Fern Farm? Could I grow my own patch of ostrich ferns in my mid-Atlantic backyard? I asked veteran forager Matt Cohen if it were possible to grow ostrich ferns as far south as Washington D.C. Cohen was tentative: They only grow in limited areas in this region, but he had seen some scattered in small colonies along the Potomac River. He had even harvested some from his own backyard under the shade of a huge 150-year-old oak tree. So I’m planting my own patch of ostrich ferns under a grove of trees in my backyard. It may take a few seasons before new shoots appear, and I expect some trial-and-error in finding the right moment to harvest the tightly wound, snail-like nubbins. Until then I can munch on my pickled fiddleheads and think of Mary Carey. When I was under 30 and Mary was over 80, she told me to live life boldly. My fiddlehead patch will be proof, in a small way, that I can.
Recipe courtesy Jonathan Bardzik.
- 2 cups trimmed fiddlehead ferns
- 1½ cup roasted red pepper blackberry vinegar (You may substitute ¾ cup sherry vinegar and ¾ cup white balsamic vinegar.)
- 1 cup water
- 2 tablespoons salt
- 1 cup brown sugar
- ¼ teaspoon salt
- 2 bay leaves
- 1 tablespoon black peppercorns
- 1 tablespoon whole mustard seed
- 1 tablespoon whole coriander seed
- 1 star anise pod
- Soak fiddleheads in water for 10 to 15 minutes.
- Place cleaned and trimmed fiddleheads in a vegetable steamer over boiling water. Cover and steam for 10 to 12 minutes.
- Remove fiddleheads from steamer and transfer to a bowl filled with half ice and half water. Let cool, then drain.
- Meanwhile, combine remaining ingredients in a small saucepan to make the pickling brine. Bring to a simmer over medium heat, stirring until sugar is dissolved. Remove from heat and bring to room temperature.
- Place fiddleheads in a bowl or jar and cover with pickling brine.
- Refrigerate for at least two hours. Leave longer to intensify flavor.
Fiddlehead Safety Tips:
The Centers for Disease Control recommends that fiddleheads should be cooked thoroughly before eating. Do not eat raw or lightly cooked fiddleheads because of the risk of foodborne illness. Always buy fiddleheads from suppliers you know and trust. Most restaurant fiddleheads use fronds of the ostrich fern (Matteuccia struthiopteris), the only variety approved for human consumption by the USDA.
Main photo: Washing ostrich fern fiddleheads before steaming. Credit: Susan Lutz