Fiddlehead ferns and morel mushrooms with pickled beets and farro

Seasonal eating is big news in New York City. The farm to table ethos is not only a movement here, it is a way of life. Organisations like the three-decade-old Greenmarket, which operates 54 farmers markets around the five boroughs including its most famous one located at Union Square, really do succeed in bringing the farm to the city. This direct access to locally grown, often organic, vegetables against the backdrop of NYC's big, bustling metropolis is very special as it creates a unique and mutually beneficial relationship between farmers and city dwellers.

As an Aussie in the big city, I’m still learning about all the produce that is available stateside. When Spring bloomed, so did foreign produce like ramps (wild leek), Hen of the Woods (mushrooms) and fiddlehead ferns.

The most fascinating of these was the vibrantly green fiddlehead ferns. I had never heard of fiddleheads until this Spring, when they suddenly popped up on restaurant menus all over town. Often pickled, sometimes sautéed or steamed, fiddleheads are tightly wound, disc shaped vegetables which are actually the curled fronds of a young fern, harvested during the Spring before the frond has had a chance to uncurl. Honestly, it is unlike any vegetable I’ve ever seen. It’s taste, however, is grassy and woody, quite similar to asparagus.

So, to me, this week’s recipe is entirely a New York kind of salad. Highly seasonal, sophisticated ingredients with lots of colour! Fiddleheads emphatically embody the vibrant colour and earthy goodness of Spring, while the quick pickled, stunningly crimson choggia beets offer a sweet acidity that surprises the palate. Morel mushrooms, another fleeting Spring visitor, have a deep honey-comb appearance and spongy texture, adding another layer of earthiness to this salad. For those in Australia, where it is currently Autumn and where creatures like fiddleheads and morels may not appear regularly at your markets, I have suggested substitutes in brackets.

Serves 4

  • 1 cup farro or pearl barley
  • 3 cups vegetable broth or other broth
  • 3-4 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 clove of regular garlic, minced
  • 115g fresh morel mushrooms (or porcini), sliced in half lengthways
  • 200g (2 cups) fiddleheads (or asparagus), cleaned
  • 1 cup frozen peas
  • 1 cup (tightly packed) baby spinach
  • 1 cup red mustard microgreens (or cress, snow pea sprouts)
  • ½ cup (tightly packed) flat leaf parsley, finely chopped
  • Sea salt and black pepper

Pickled Choggia Beets (makes 1 cup)

  • 2 tsp sea salt
  • 4 small choggia (or red beetroot), finely sliced
  • ½ cup white wine vinegar
  • ½ cup sugar
  • ½ tsp mustard seeds
  • ½ tsp white peppercorns
  • ¼  tsp fennel seeds
  • ¼  tsp cumin seeds
  • 1 bay leaf

To make the quick pickled beets, place the sliced beets into a screwtop jar. Combine all the pickling ingredients in a medium saucepan, and add 1 cup of water. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat and cook for about 2 minutes, stirring until the sugar is dissolved. Pour the mixture over the beets and seal the jar. Cool to room temperature and refrigerate for up to 2 weeks. Allow to pickle overnight (at least) before eating!

Soak the sliced morels in water and move them around to loosen any debris. Clean them carefully and set them on a tea towel to dry.

Bring the broth to the boil. Add the farro, along with a pinch of salt. Simmer gently for 20-25 minutes, or until the farro is tender. Drain and immediately add the frozen peas. The residual heat from the farro will cook the peas.

Bring a pot of water to the boil, add a generous amount of salt (you want it to taste of sea water!). Add the fiddleheads and boil them for 5 minutes, then immediately drop them into a bowl of ice cold water to cool. When cool, allow them to dry on a tea towel.

In a medium frypan, add a drizzle of olive oil and the garlic. Add the morels and shake the pan to move the mushrooms around. Allow them to cook for 2 minutes, until they have released their water. Add the fiddleheads to the pan along with a big pinch of sea salt, and cook for 2-3 more minutes until the fiddleheads are tender and starting to char.

Combine the morels and fiddlesheads with the farro and drizzle with olive oil. Add the baby spinach and parsley and season with sea salt and black pepper. To serve, scatter over slices of pickled beets and the microgreens.