This all started because I was sad I have to skip one of the New England Slalom Series whitewater races, the Fiddlehead, so named because the race takes place in early May just as the bright green fiddleheads poke out of the ground, ready to unfurl into ferns. Part of what I’d be missing was soup. Every year the race organizer brings a huge vat of steaming creamy fiddlehead soup which we all eagerly lap up after a chilly day on the river.
As a consolation, I thought I’d try to make my own cream of fiddlehead soup. After all, my local Certified Naturally Grown farmers at the Kilpatrick Family Farm had harvested a big bucket of beautiful emerald disks. So what if I didn’t actually have a recipe?
My idea seemed simple enough: use Julia Child’s infallible instructions to whip up a creamy soup base, and substitute fiddleheads for broccoli, more or less. Sure I could have followed an actual recipe for cream of fiddlehead soup, but I couldn’t find one that sounded good—not in any of my cookbooks nor online. This may be because fiddleheads are one of those elusive ingredients that show up for a few weeks in spring and then vanish.
Many of the fiddlehead soup recipes wanted me to dump my precious fiddleheads into chicken broth, bubble them into submission, purée, and then pour in a whole lot of heavy cream. No no no no no.
On the other hand, I did learn a lot of important fiddlehead facts in my internet research. Most importantly, don’t go fiddlehead hunting in your own yard unless you know what to look for. I found a tutorial from University of Maine Cooperative Extension that explains how to determine which is the right (edible) kind of fern (the ostrich fern).
It turns out some ferns are carcinogenic and others are just unpleasant. According to a warning issued by Health Canada, even the ostrich fern you can find in your local market must be thoroughly cooked to avoid digestive distress, possibly caused by a toxin.
Armed with facts and optimism, my first batch turned out looking like a scummy pond—brownish and opaque, but not creamy, with flecks of green and brown things floating in it. It tasted okay, but it was not the soup of my dreams.
This weekend I attended another slalom race and began trouble-shooting my technique (who knew this sport would lead to cooking inspiration?) I met Chef Heather Umlah and while she was whipping up the most amazing outdoor cooking I’ve ever eaten, I picked her brain about my soup missteps.
I explained I’d started with Julia Child’s instructions for velouté, the sinfully delicious soup base use in cream of all kinds of veggie soups. It looked simple enough, starting with a roux (butter and flour) and adding broth.
“I think I may have missed a step,” I confessed to Chef Heather.
“There are no skipping steps with Julia Child,” Heather said, not taking her eyes off a dish of mushrooms, asparagus, and eggplant she was stirring. “You have to whisk the broth in slowly,” Heather said when I described my method.
It’s possible that in round 1 that I dumped it all in at once. When I went back to The Way to Cook, I noticed Julia Child cautions, “Velouté soups are delicious and velvety when properly made, but they can be dismal and gluey when prepared by careless or untutored cooks.”
I suppose I fell into both those groups. Well not exactly careless. More like clumsy and impatient. I didn’t actually measure the butter and I missed her caution about remembering to cook the roux suffiently. And I think it’s fair to say I’m untutored. Sorry Julia. It wasn’t gluey, but it was kind of dismal.
Round two came out delicious, creamy, and appropriately colored, though it took a little tinkering. Still, good enough to warrant inclusion here.
Cream of Fiddlehead Soup
- 1 lb Fiddlhead ferns
- 4 TBS butter
- 1 cup minced onion
- ¼ cup flour (plus more later in case you mess up and the soup doesn’t thicken)
- 7-8 cups hot veggie stock (I used homemade because its pale color kept the soup pretty)
- ½ cup milk
- salt & pepper
- dried thyme to sprinkle on top when serving
- Prepare the fiddleheads:
- Run the fiddleheads under a stream of water and scrape off any brown papery coating. Rinse thoroughly.
- Meanwhile, bring a pot of water to boil with a pinch of salt
- Cut the stems off the fiddleheads so there is no more than a one inch tail. If there are brown ends, cut them off.
- Toss the fiddleheads into the boiling water and boil them gently for ten minutes or slightly longer. You want them to be tender but not mushy. Drain and run cold water over them.
- Note: Don’t save the cooking water as you would for, say, Julia Child’s cream of broccoli soup. The cooking water for fiddleheads may be quite brown and doesn’t taste very good. Besides, plenty of sources say you should always discard the cooking water for fiddleheads anyway.
- Make the creamy soup base:
- Melt the butter over low heat
- Add the onions and cook about 8 minutes until they are translucent
- Add the flour and stir well. Cook for a few minutes until you create a bubbly roux.
- Remove the roux from the heat and whisk in one cup of the hot broth until you have a very creamy white sauce.
- Return the pot to the heat and very slowly whisk in the rest of the broth. If you are successful, the soup should be thick enough coat a wooden spoon. (If not, follow step 3 to fix after simmering)
- Simmer for another 10 minutes.
- If the soup doesn’t thicken: in a medium bowl, whisk 2 TBS of flour with a scoop (½ cup) of hot soup base. The mixture should turn quite thick. Slowly add about another ½ cup broth. Slowly pour into soup and allow to simmer together for another 10 minutes. If it is still too thin, you can repeat this step. Your significant other will never know that your soup was this close to getting poured down the drain.
- Puree about 7/8 of the fiddleheads with 1 cup of the creamy soup base in your food processor until it makes a beautiful light green paste. (It will still have shards of fiddlheads.) Add the mixture back to the rest of the soup base along with the whole fiddleheads. Stir and return to a simmer.
- Add salt and pepper to taste and sprinkle dried thyme onto soup in the serving bowls.