Just after the snow melts, but long before the last frost, hardy New Englanders take to moist meadows and muddy riverbanks in search of an early but fleeting sign of spring: the furled baby fern, or fiddlehead. It looks like the scrolled top of a violin and tastes a little like asparagus.
You can find them now in Vermont. Chef Ryan O'Malley, of Elements Food and Spirit in St. Johnsbury, Vt., heads out on a raw, misty morning to harvest some. He finds a mother lode of fiddleheads in a rugged corner of the state called the "Northeast Kingdom."
"Generally, what happens is [the shoots] grow up in the center of the patch and they mature spreading out, so often you can find concentric rings around the center of the patch that are just now offering up new shoots," O'Malley says.
Fiddlehead pickers often learn from their elders how to spot the varieties that are safe to eat.
Most amateur cooks just wash them well, boil them for about three minutes, splash them with butter and lemon, and serve them up as soon as possible after bringing them home.
In his restaurant kitchen, though, O'Malley adds a few savory ingredients and a couple of additional steps for his mouthwatering recipe.
"Well, it's a fiddlehead and cavatelli dish with duck confit. Nice little full-flavored dish, and when we put it on the menu we call it 'Duck and Fiddle,' " O'Malley says.
He quickly sautes the preserved duck with wild onions, bathes it with a buttery white wine sauce, and tosses in the parboiled, bite-sized pasta and the glistening green fiddleheads.
After a few ambrosial bites, I call it investigative journalism.