Bitterness. It's a state of mind, you say. Bitter is as bitter does. Easy for an ostrich eater to say. The fact is, us West Coasters have no choice but to pamper. It's part of the contract. Otherwise we're sure to be disappointed. It happens in restaurants all the time. "They looked so cool on the plate...I thought they'd taste better."
The bitterness in ladies varies significantly from patch to patch, for reasons that I can't begin to understand. If you find a patch of lady fern fiddleheads that's less bitter than others, hold tight to that patch!
The next best thing is to use them accordingly. Like with this very simple pickling recipe. It's a "quick pickle" deal. I've used other pickling recipes in the past for fiddleheads, but this is my new favorite for its ease, texture (i.e. crunch), and a perfect balance between salt and sweet. Perhaps more importantly, any bitterness is miraculously vaporized in the marriage of flavors. One of the benefits of the quick pickle method is that the fiddleheads aren't subjected to a withering hot water bath. The obvious downside is that you can't keep them on hand for months at a time, at least I don't think you can. So far I haven't been able to keep any on hand for more than a couple days.
1 cup rice vinegar
1 tsp salt
1/2 tsp sugar
2 half-pint jars
A note on cleaning fiddleheads: It's imperative that you remove as much of the brown, hairy, and bitter-tasting sheath that adorns the fiddlehead as possible. The easiest way to do this is to first run the fiddleheads under a strong tap, then immerse in a bowl of water and work them with your fingers, emptying and filling the bowl periodically to discard the residue. Finally, clean each fiddlehead individually between thumb and forefinger for a few seconds. The cleaner the better. Neatly trim the ends afterward.
1. In a pot of salted water, parboil cleaned fiddleheads for 1 minute. Drain and shock in cold water before draining again and removing to paper towels.
2. Mix pickling brine of rice vinegar, salt, and sugar.
3. Pack 2 half-pint jars with fiddleheads and cover with pickling brine. Refrigerate overnight.