The other day I ate a known carcinogen—a juicy char-grilled burger. I'm not alone in my cancer-baiting, certainly not this time of year when hamburgers and hotdogs are mainstays of the backyard barbecue.
But to eat a handful of stir-fried bracken fern is to seemingly court disaster in some quarters. You see, bracken (Pteridium aquilinum) is also known to contain carcinogens, specifically a substance called ptaquiloside. Never mind that bracken has been a food staple of Native Americans for centuries if not millennia, or that the Japanese also have a yen for this common fern and consider it a delicacy of spring. In fact, we might just call out these two populations on purpose, since studies have suggested their higher rates of intestinal cancer could be linked to bracken.
On the other hand, there are plenty who are suspicious of inconclusive studies and the advice of nutritionists. In his book Identifying and Harvesting Edible and Medicinal Plants, Steve Brill says: "I wouldn't be afraid of eating reasonable quantities of wild [bracken] fiddleheads during their short season." And on his web site, Florida forager Green Deane says: "I think nearly everything causes cancer and I am willing to risk a few fiddleheads with butter once or twice a spring, which is about as often as I can collect enough in this warm place."
What to do?
I've been avoiding bracken for years because of these studies, but in the end I'd heard enough positive reports from trusted sources that I decided to give the fern a try. I'm not planning to eat huge quantities of bracken anytime soon, but to banish this ancient food from the table strikes me as equally rash.
Most of us have seen bracken before. It's a hardy fern that sometimes covers acres of land. Generally it emerges later in spring than other fern species. Its fiddleheads—if they can be called that, since they hardly resemble the typical fiddlehead form of the ostrich or lady fern—are claw-shaped, like a hawk that's squeezing its fist around around an unlucky mouse. Collect bracken when it's still tightly coiled, about six to eight inches in length; the picture above shows a specimen that is just slightly past its prime for the pot.
How I Cooked My Bracken
My friend Jon Rowley passed along these instructions from Seattle's premier sushi chef, who serves bracken at his eponymous restaurant, Shiro's.
Salt a pot of water generously and bring it to boil. Stir in the bracken, kill the heat, and allow the water to cool. This will take a little while. Next wash off the bracken under cool running water before serving. For my dish I gave the bracken an additional stir-fry with spring porcini mushrooms, a little ground pork, and splashes of sesame oil, soy sauce, and Chinese cooking wine (Xiaoxing).
The flavor is delicate. I liken it to the taste of kale or chard in the package of thin asparagus.
So what about you? Do you eat bracken or have an opinion about its edibility or lack thereof? I'd like to hear from you.