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Spring isn't spring without fiddleheads

For many Maine families spring isn't complete without a mess of fiddlehead greens gathered from along the riverbanks, streams, and moist woodlands. Fiddleheads are the sprouting fronds of the ostrich fern, or Matteuccia struthiopteris, as it is known botanically.

Cutting fiddleheads just unwinding from the ground is an old New England custom, because they were the first fresh vegetable of the new year, bringing relief from the monotonous winter diet of potatoes, salt pork, dried fish, dried beans, apples, and molasses.

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They are also found in other parts of North America, from the east coast of Virginia northward across Canada and down in the United States as far as Iowa and Missouri.

But most fiddleheads have been discovered in the valleys and along the rivers in the Canadian province of New Brunswick.

The taste of fiddleheads is springlike and somewhat like other fresh green vegetables, such as asparagus or green beans. Their season is very short, but they are also available frozen and canned.

The best way to cook fiddleheads is in a small amount of salted boiling water for 5 to 10 minutes, or to steam them covered for half an hour. First, however, the brown-colored fuzz on the heads must be removed in several rinses of cold water.

Serve the fiddleheads with lemon juice, vinegar, or butter.

Here are several other ways to enjoy them. Cream of Fiddlehead Soup 1 cup cooked, chopped fiddleheads 1 1/2 cups of liquid from cooking greens 1 1/2 cups evaporated milk or cream 1 chicken bouillon cube 1 tablespoon butter or margarine Salt and pepper to season

Cook fiddleheads for 18 to 20 minutes in salted boiling water until tender. Drain, reserving liquid. Chop greens and add reserved liquid, milk or cream, bouillon cube, and butter. Add salt and pepper to taste. Heat gently.

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Serve hot with crisp crackers. For a thicker soup, combine 21/2 tablespoons flour with the butter to make a paste, add liquids slowly and cook, stirring until thickened. Add seasonings and greens. Fiddlehead Salad 1 thinly sliced red onion 1 can kidney beans, drained 1 green pepper, thinly sliced 4 to 5 cups cooked fiddleheads 1 cup Caesar salad dressing Cook fiddleheads until crisp but tender, drain, and while still hot add onion, kidney beans, and green pepper. Add dressing and toss until well blended. Refrigerate overnight.

Try a dressing made with 1/2 cup of oil, 5 tablespoons vinegar, 1 teaspoon each salt and sugar, a shake of pepper, 1/2 teaspoon dehydrated garlic, and 3 tablespoons of grated Romano or Parmesan cheese.

Quiche is another way of serving fiddlehead greens. Simply substitute fiddleheads for the vegetable in your own quiche recipe. For extra flavor, crumble in 3 slices of crisp bacon.

You can also use fiddleheads in any asparagus recipe. Or try the cooked greens on toast, sesame seed buns, or English muffins. Top with a sharp cheese sauce. Fiddleheads on Muffins 3 1/2 tablespoons butter or margarine 3 1/2 tablespoons flour 1 1/2 cups milk 1/2 teaspoon salt Dash of pepper 1 1/4 cups shredded sharp Cheddar cheese 4 English muffins 3 cups cooked fiddleheads

In saucepan, combine butter and flour to make a paste. Slowly add milk, cooking and stirring constantly, until smooth and thickened. Add seasonings and stir in cheese until melted. Split and toast muffins. Top with the hot, cooked greens and cheese sauce.

If cheese dishes aren't for you, serve the greens in a white sauce with toasted almonds and a crumb topping. Add a can of tuna and a tablespoon of lemon juice to the sauce, if you like. Fiddlehead Casserole 1 1/2 cups white sauce 2 cups cooked fiddleheads 1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice 1 can of tuna, optional 1/2 cup toasted almonds 1/2 cup fine soft whole wheat bread crumbs 1 tablespoon melted butter

Combine white sauce, greens, lemon juice, tuna, and almonds. Mix crumbs with melted butter and top casserole mixture. Bake at 350 degrees F. 20 to 25 minutes , until bubbly and golden brown.

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