Fiddleheads Tempura with Aoli

Spring came earlier than usual this year. Fiddleheads usually appear in May, but this year they are plentiful in April—even as far north as Elmore, Vermont. The scroll-like Ostrich Fern fiddleheads are easily identified by the brown skin that clings loosely to the emerging shoots. If you pick your own, harvest only 3 per plant to prevent decimating the fern population. Fiddleheads are readily available in markets during their brief season. They have a delicate flavor sometimes described as similar to asparagus or okra, or simply as spring greens.Fiddleheads’ crisp texture is enhanced by a crackly tempura coating, and a silky smooth aoli spiked with garlic, lemon, and parsley. Rice flour is the secret ingredient that makes a light, lacy, crispy coating.

4 cups Ostrich Fern fiddleheads, cleaned
½ cup rice flour for dredging
Vegetable oil as needed for frying

Tempura Batter
1½ cups rice flour
1½ cups unflavored seltzer or club soda (very cold)
1 egg yolk
1 tsp salt

2 cloves garlic, peeled, roughly chopped
¼ tsp salt
1 large egg yolk
Juice from ½ lemon
½ cup olive oil
Couple of grinds black pepper
1 Tbsp fresh flat-leaf parsley, finely chopped

Fiddleheads purchased at a store have usually been cleaned of their brownish, papery covering. If you picked fiddleheads in the wild, place them into a sink filled with cold water.

Agitate the water with your hands for a minute or so to loosen the onionskin covering. Drain the water from the sink and finish cleaning the skins from the fiddleheads. Clean the sink and refill with cold water and repeat the process. It usually takes 2 washings to remove the covering.

Trim the brown ends from the stalks to an inch or less in length. Place the fiddleheads on absorbent toweling to dry.

Place the chopped garlic, salt, yolk, and lemon juice in the bowl of a food processor. Pulse the machine until the ingredients are blended.

Gradually pour the oil through the opening with the machine running.

Add the pepper and chopped parsley and pulse to combine.

Make the batter at the last minute. Combine the ingredients until they are just blended; there should be a few lumps remaining. Keeping the batter cold helps to make the batter crisp. The greater the difference in the temperature of the batter with the temperature of the oil is a key factor in this type of coating. I like to put a stainless steel bowl in the freezer for a few minutes before making the batter to help keep the batter cool.

Heat 2 inches of vegetable oil over medium-high heat in a heavy pot such as cast iron. Test the temperature of the oil by dropping a bit of batter into it. If it doesn’t sink and starts to fry immediately temperature is correct. It should be maintained between 350° to 375°. Prepare a baking sheet lined with paper towels and set a wire cooling rack on top.

Toss the fiddleheads in a bowl of rice flour and shake off excess using a wire strainer. The rice flour will help the batter adhere to the fiddleheads.

Dip the fiddleheads one at a time into the batter and drop carefully into the hot oil. Cook until they turn golden. Total cooking time is 3 to 4 minutes. Remove with tongs or a slotted spoon to wire cooling rack while preparing the remaining fiddleheads. Use a perforated spoon to clear out stray fragments of batter between batches. Serve warm with aoli for dipping.

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