Foraging: Lady Ferns
Any of the voluminous field guides on plants in the Northwest will be able to help you competently tell lady fern apart from its sister species. The easiest fern to mistake it for is Bracken Fern, which is also sprouting right now. Both ferns unfurl from a frond as in the pictures here. However, the Bracken Fern has multiple branches on its stem whereas the Lady Fern has only one main stalk. Think ‘branches’ when thinking Bracken Fern.
There have been anthropological studies to suggest that the Bracken Fern is slightly carcinogenic. One meal won’t kill you, but eating them in mass is not advised. I strongly advise other adventurous foodies to fact check me. Don’t eat something just because I do. I am going to try to find the book reference for this little factoid that I pulled from the recesses of my memory. If someone reading this can leave a little clarity in the comments, it would be greatly appreciated.
Preparing Lady FernTo me, freshly cooked Lady Fern is indistinguishable (in terms of both taste and texture) from fresh asparagus. The only visual difference is the slight curl to the top of the stalk, when cooked. The proper time to harvest lady fern is in early Spring (April) when the fronds pop out of the ground, but before they unfurl too much. I’ve never tried to eat Lady Fern unfurled, but I imagine it gets stringy and tough.
When the fronds first burst out of the soil, they are covered by a papery brown sack. This bursts apart and sticks to the length of the stalk. It tastes very bitter and it’s important to remove before cooking. The easiest way I’ve found to clean the stalk is to lightly scrape the stalk with the back of a butter knife. You don’t want to scrape so much as rub the leaves and brown flakes off of it.
If you want to garnish a dish and take your time, it looks really cool to gently clean the stock and keep the fragile spiral at the top. It makes your food look awesome. However, if you are eating them in quantity, it’s a waste of time. Snap off the top and focus on the stalk, where the main part of the ‘food’ is located.
Cooking Lady FernMy favorite way to cook lady fern is the same way I cook asparagus. I thinly cover the bottom of a frying pan with oil and heat it on medium-high. I then add the stalks and sprinkle with dried garlic. 10 minutes of sautéing and viola! Dinner.
The last picture shows the dinner I cooked up with elk steak, steamed nettles, lady fern, and mashed potatoes. A very hearty dinner, and all wild except for the potatoes.