Spring Lessons & Brown Butter-Sage Gnocchi with Fiddleheads

Apr 27 / Alberto Carbo
As the cold dissipates and our green friends begin to re-emerge from dormancy, I am reminded of the many important lessons that the plant realm so kindly shares with us.

Patience first comes to mind, as I eagerly await the infinite shades of green & the colorful flowers.

The seasonality of certain plants or parts of that plant that we may use for different preparations encourages our conscious presence at that moment in time.

The sheer abundance and variety of edible and medicinal plants cultivate gratitude.

The most beautiful part of it all is perhaps the fact that these lessons are best learned through experience. Heeding the wild call, we venture into the fresh-scented spring breeze, brush past fragrant fresh leaves and the promise of new, while stepping over the thick layers of fallen foliage that now slowly composts into rich nutritious soil with a promise for the future.

One of my favorite spring plants reminds me that this cycle of death and rebirth has been repeating for eons, and my mind starts to wonder how many beings this prehistoric plant has nourished along the way.

Observing Ostrich ferns (Matteuccia struthiopteris) in the spring is akin to traveling back in time. According to fossil records, it seems that our friendly ferns date back at least 383 million years. Although the species we have today are not the same as the ones from long ago, their ancient origins have contributed to their diversity, making them the most diverse group of non-flowering plants on earth today.

Although their primary method of reproduction is through underground runners that form new rhizome crowns, their secondary method is more unique and a testament to their resilience, as they do not depend on pollinators, but rather on spores.

Their spore-driven reproduction happens in two generations:
  1. A diploid sporophyte generation, in which green fertile fronds (sporophytes), emerge in autumn, turn brown and stand erect through winter, in order to release their spores in early spring.
  2. A haploid gametophyte generation. This generation begins when the spores find fertile ground and germinate into green, finger-nail-sized hearts called gametophytes, which contain both male and female reproductive structures. Once fertilized, gametophytes morph into new plants by sprouting fresh sterile fronds (the pale green leaves we all know them by), as the gametophyte disintegra

As yet another winter passes and the ground warms, ferns strive to unfurl their fronds, and it is a magical sight. These tightly coiled leaves emerge from below ground in a primordial process called circinate vernation reminding me of the curled-up way in which a human fetus begins to develop.

These wild edibles are colloquially referred to as fiddleheads, and they are one of the most delicious and nutritious gifts of spring.

Ostrich fern fiddleheads are a rich source of the following nutrients:
  • ascorbate (vitamin C): Essential for the development and maintenance of connective tissue (tissue healing); An important role in osseous (bone) formation; Wound healing, and the maintenance of healthy gums; Plays a role in several metabolic functions like the activation of vitamin B and folic acid; the conversion of cholesterol into bile acids (essential for digestion); the conversion of tryptophan (amino acid) to the neurotransmitter, serotonin; enhances the availability and absorption of iron; An antioxidant protecting the body from oxidative damage; protects the immune system
  • antioxidant carotenoids α (alpha) and β (beta): converted into retinol (vitamin A) to help support optimal eye health, stimulate white blood cell production, and help maintain endothelial cells
  • lutein and zeaxanthin: These are taken up by the macula of the eye in order to help maintain optimal visual function; phenolic compounds are antioxidants recognized for reducing mutagenesis and carcinogenesis 
  • High in essential fatty acid content: omega-3 eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) which supports cardiovascular health and may also increase levels of high-density lipoprotein (HDL/the “good” cholesterol); omega-6 arachidonic acid which can lower low-density lipoprotein (LDL/the “bad” cholesterol), help maintain stable blood sugars, reduces inflammation, reduces the chance of blood clots; γ-linoleic, and dihomo-γ-linoleic which is thought to suppress tumor growth and metastasis and suspected of promoting cardiovascular health
  • High in essential minerals and electrolytes such as: Potassium, Iron, Manganese, Copper

How to identify Ostrich fern (Matteuccia struthiopteris) Fiddleheads:
  • Newly emerging fiddleheads are bright green and partially covered with thin, brown, paper-like scales. The scales fall off as the fiddlehead grows upward. If you are new to identifying fiddleheads, look for brand new ones that are just popping out of the ground, once you have identified those, you can more assuredly i.d. more mature ones.
  • Ostrich ferns have a U-shaped groove on the inside of the smooth stem.  The inside refers to the area that is on the same side of the stem as the direction of the inward curling frond (leaf).
  • Fiddleheads are green in color. Do not confuse them with the fertile spore-bearing frond, which is: brownish in color, erect and at least 15 inches tall with 25+ ‘pods’ on either side of the stem.  You may find ostrich ferns that do not have fertile fronds, but they do help in identifying if you are a beginner.

Optimal harvest time: 
  • It is best to pick them when they are 2-6 inches in height. I prefer them on the taller side, as the stem is just as tasty as the furl.
  • Pick them when still tightly curled.
  • Brush off the papery-brown material.
  • If they have started to unfurl, they are past their time.
  • Fiddlehead season is short and passes by in a blink of an eye!

Safety Considerations: Proper plant identification is important!

Although not much is known about other ferns, Bracken ferns have been shown to be poisonous to rats (in laboratory conditions).

How to know if you found a bracken fern:
  • Bracken fern fiddleheads are fuzzy
  • They do not have the brown, thin, paper-like scales
  • They do not have a U-shaped groove on the inside of the stem

Ostrich fern fiddleheads are delicious, but they must be cooked. Fresh fiddleheads contain thiaminase, which destroys vitamin B1 when ingested. (see recipe below for cooking instructions)

Sustainable harvesting:
As stewards of the land, we are responsible for protecting it and maintaining it.

  • Harvest crowns that have at least four fiddleheads.
  • This means this plant can sustain a picking.
  • If there are less than 4, this could indicate a new/or weak plant, or that someone got there before you.
  • Only pick 1/3 of the fiddleheads from any individual crown.
  • Only pick from every second or third crown.
  • Practice conscious presence when picking fiddleheads, being careful not to damage any other fiddles along the way.
  • Take only what you need and will use.
  • Never pick from crowns that have been previously harvested.

Brown Butter Sage Gnocchi with Fiddleheads*

  • 4 lbs Russet potatoes
  • 2 Eggs
  • 2 Cups Flour
  • 1 tsp Salt
  • ½ tsp Pepper

Yield: This is highly dependent on your serving size. Gnocchi are filling, so serving sizes tend to be on the smaller side. This recipe does yield a substantial amount of gnocchi. Gnocchi freeze really well (see step 20), so unless you are serving a large group, you will have fresh frozen gnocchi for future servings. If you would like to start off small, divide every ingredient in half and you will make half the amount.

Making Gnocchi Instructions:
  1. Set oven to 450°F.
  2. After washing potatoes, pierce with a knife several times on each side (so they don’t explode!).
  3. Lightly rub potatoes with vegetable oil of your choice (I use my hands).
  4. Bake potatoes on a baking pan for 40-55 minutes, until you can easily insert the knife and it just as easily pulls out (just like if you were making simple baked potatoes).
  5. Pull out of the oven and cut them in half.
  6. Allow the potatoes to cool. - This is an important step. If you don’t allow the potatoes to cook, they will absorb flour more easily, resulting in a mashed potato-like dough. At this point most people add more flour, and eventually it becomes a gummy mushy dough that tastes excessively like flour.
  7. Once cooled, use a paring knife to peel the potato skins, or hold the potato half in one hand, and scoop the soft potato inside with a spoon.
  8. Now for potato mashing! You can either use a potato ricer or a meat grinder (my personal favorite, as I find it leaves the potatoes very smooth). If you have neither, don’t despair! I have used a potato regular potato masher before with success. Of course, this is more time-consuming and labor-intensive. But it can be done!
  9. Beat your eggs with salt and pepper.
  10. Place your potato mash on a clean working surface. Make a square ‘mold’ of potato mash and use your finger to part the potatoes, making several parallel wells in the mash.
  11. Drizzle your eggs over the mash, trying to fill the wells uniformly.
  12. Sift your flour over the potato mash.
  13. Use your hands or a bench scraper to incorporate everything together gently.
  14. Once it comes together, lightly dust the work surface and use your hands to knead the dough gently. It is important to not over-work the dough! Use a light touch to roll, and fold the dough. It is important to repeat to use gentle hands! Keep the dough fluffy and refrain from mashing or slamming the dough
  15. Gently roll the dough into an even cylinder. Cover with a cotton cloth.
  16. Lift the cloth and cut a piece of the dough.
  17. Roll the cut piece into an elongated cylinder, about 1/2 an inch in diameter.
  18. Cut the cylinder in even pieces 1/2 inch thick.
  19. Roll the gnocchi gently with your thumb over a fork or a gnocchi paddle (if you have one), to create ridges. Almost every single gnocchi recipe I have ever seen includes this step, but it is pure aesthetics. If you are short on time, don’t care, or simply are overwhelmed, happily skip this step! Your gnocchi will still taste great! Alternatively, you could simply indent each piece with your finger for a simpler finish.
  20. The formed gnocchi should go into a floured baking sheet and straight in the freezer.
  21. Repeat steps 16-20 until you have finished the dough.

Note: If you are preparing all of the gnocchi fresh, you do not need to freeze them. But the recipe yields a decent amount so it makes sense to freeze what you are not immediately using for later.

Tip: Making gnocchi is most enjoyable when doing it with friends or family. Once you have your dough, everyone can lend a hand for the rolling part, and the end result will be that much more enjoyable.

Cooking Gnocchi: Make your sauce first, as the cooked gnocchi will be added straight into it.
  1. Bring a pasta pot (with the strainer attachment) of water to a boil, add salt and lower the heat until you have a strong simmer.
  2. Add the gnocchi in batches so as to not overcrowd the pot. They will sink.
  3. Once the gnocchi float to the surface, cook for 1 minute and immediately pull them out of the water.
  4. It is important to not overcook the gnocchi, as they will turn gummy/mushy.
  5. Add to your sauce.

*If you don't have time to handmake the gnocchi, store-bought is fine.

Brown Butter-Sage & Fiddlehead Sauce
  • 1 serving (multiply every ingredient by the # of people you want to serve)
  • 1/8 cup grass-fed butter (if possible)
  • 4 medium-sized garden sage leaves (Salvia officinalis), chopped
  • 4-5 fiddleheads
  • 1 small clove of garlic (optional), crushed

  1. Fill a pot with 1-2 inches of water and bring to a boil. Reduce to a simmer, and add the fiddleheads in a colander, suspended over the water. Cover the pot.
  2. Steam for 8-10 minutes. You want them to be cooked but still somewhat firm, not mushy-soft.
  3. Place the butter in a skillet and gently melt (low heat). Allow the butter to continue cooking, and it will begin to brown (again low heat, otherwise it burns). You will know you are doing it right when it starts to smell nutty-ish and toasty. If your fiddleheads are still cooking, remove them from the stovetop, but keep them on top of the warm stove.
  4. Remove fiddleheads from the strainer and onto a cutting board. Use a chef’s knife to cut them into 1/4-1/2 inch pieces. I like to cut the fiddleheads after I have steamed them, as I find the cook more evenly, but if this seems tedious, cut them before you steam them, and adjust your cooking time, as they will cook faster.
  5. Add the fiddleheads and garlic to the browned butter and continue to cook on medium-low for 1-2 minutes. Add a pinch of salt to taste.
  6. Add the gnocchi and the sage.
  7. Serve with some cracked pepper on top. Incorporate everything together.

As always make sure to forage for plants away from roads and pollution as much as possible. Never overharvest any plant, as they are of course not only here for our enjoyment, but also here for the insects, bees, and birds. Have fun out there!
The information provided in this digital content is not medical advice, nor should it be taken or applied as a replacement for medical advice. Matthew Wood, the Matthew Wood Institute of Herbalism, ETS Productions, and their employees, guests, and affiliates assume no liability for the application of the information discussed.