Pasta with Fiddlehead, Smoked Sausage and Caramelized Onion

Whether you think of Canada as a melting pot or a cultural mosaic, our ethnic and cultural diversity is absolutely indisputable. Perhaps that’s why people think of Canada as lacking our own culinary identity, which couldn’t be further from the truth.  Canada’s culinary heritage is rich and diverse, true, but wouldn’t you expect that from a country which spans from rocky mountains to red-earthed seasides, and arid prairies with rolling fields to arboreal forests?

When I think of Canadian fare, I tend to focus on our indigenous ingredients, which are often very localized and seasonal. A great example of this would be Fiddleheads, our revered favorite first produce of late spring and early summer, which only show up in the markets or at grocery stores for a few short weeks every year. Fiddleheads are young, edible ferns that have not yet matured and unfurled.  They have a wonderfully sweet and mild flavor that reminds me a bit of fresh asparagus, but far more special because they are always so fleeting.

Because they have such a short season, when I see fiddleheads I usually snap them up and cook them simply to let their natural beauty take center stage. Usually just a quick steam and a squeeze of lemon, or a brief saute with a touch of butter and salt are all that they require. Unless, of course, you have other tricks up your sleeve.

When Mike asked what I was making for dinner, I laughingly referred to this as the “Canadiana version of Mac’n’Cheese”.  Everything tastes better smothered in a delicious and homemade cheese sauce, and I’m still working my way through our spoils from the Great Canadian Cheese Festival a few weeks back.  To add complexity to this Mac, a bit of lean, smoked game sausage adds a perfect and compelling richness against the fresh green flavor of the tender fiddleheads, and I was lucky enough to have acquired a supply of venison “pepperettes” from a friend.  Salty, smoky, incredibly flavorful and utterly addictive, the last time she gave us a bag I hid them in the back of the fridge and ate them all by myself, hand to mouth. This time, I managed to save a few to find their higher purpose.  Finally, sweet caramelized onions bring balance to the saltiness, richness and earthiness of the dish.

From the fiddleheads to venison and artisan Ontario sheep milk cheese, in my opinion, this is “Canadian” comfort food.

Pasta with Fiddlehead, Smoked Sausage and Caramelized Onion

Serves 4 with a side salad

  • 1 lb Scoobi Do pasta *
  • 1 lb fresh fiddleheads **
  • 4 tbsp butter, divided
  • 1 red onion
  • 4 fat cloves garlic
  • 175 g (~ 6 oz) dried, smoked venison sausage
  • 3 tbsp flour
  • 2.25 cups milk
  • 2 tsp Dijon mustard
  • 175 g (~ 6 oz) washed rind sheep milk cheese **
  • salt and and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

* Technically named cavatappi, Scoobi Do (or Scoobi Doo) pasta is also sometimes known as cellentani, spirali, tortiglione or simply double elbow macaroni.  I love the way the corkscrew shape holds on to sauce and twists around fiddleheads. If you can’t find Scoobi Do, a large macaroni or even a small shell-shaped pasta will easily suffice. Also, I used whole wheat pasta because that’s just how I roll.

  ** If you are making this dish when fiddlheads are out of season (which is most of the time), asparagus is a perfectly good substitute.

*** I used a locally made small-batch artisan (read: difficult to source) cheese from Ontario. However, your favorite salty, semi-firm, nutty but flavorful washed rind cheese can easily suffice. A few suggestions that are easily attainable would be Spanish Manchego or young Italian Asiago, but even the nuttier and sweeter French Gruyere can suffice in a pinch.

Melt two (2) tablespoons of butter over low heat in a large sauce pan.

Peel the red onion and cut it into quarters. Slice each quarter crosswise into manageable chunks, each about 1/4″ thick.  Start to sweat out the onion slowly over low heat, stirring occasionally, until it starts to caramelize. This will take about 15-20 minutes, so be patient. You don’t want the onion to cook too quickly or brown, but rather to gradually turn golden and release that natural sugar.

Peel and finely mince the garlic. When the onion is sweet and starting to caramelize, stir this in and cook for a minute or two until fragrant.

Dice the venison sausage and add this to the pan.  Stir together and let this cook for another 3-5 minutes.

Scrape the onion and sausage mixture out of the pan and set it aside.  In the same dirty, crusty (read: flavorful!) pan, melt the remaining two (2) tablespoons of butter over medium low heat.

Sprinkle in the flour and let this cook down until it goes from floury paste to a golden bubble, about 2 minutes maximum.

Slowly pour in the milk, whisking constantly.  With your first addition, the roux (browned butter and flour) will seize, but continue to whisk vigorously and add the milk in a smooth, steady stream because you don’t want lumps in the cheese sauce.

Adding liquid to your hot pan will also deglaze it, so as you whisk in the milk, be sure to scrape up all those delicious browned bits from the bottom of the pan so that they can be incorporated back in.  That, my friends, is where the flavor comes from.

Whisk in the Dijon mustard.

Grate the cheese and slowly add the shreds to the cream sauce, one small handful at a time. Stir well after each addition and do not add the next until the previous handful is melted and combined. At the end, you will have a smooth, thick  and cheesy cream sauce which will be absolutely delightful with your curvy pasta….or just about anything else!

Season the sauce to taste with salt and be quite liberal with the freshly ground black pepper. Please, don’t skimp on the seasoning or your sauce will be bland and what a waste of cheese that would be!

Stir the caramelized onion and sausage back in so that it can infuse the cheese sauce with all that luscious, robust flavor. Turn the heat down to minimum and cover the pan with a lid to keep it warm until the pasta is cooked.

Set a large pot of water over high heat until it comes to a rolling boil. As you wait, prepare the fiddleheads.

Unless you have foraged for the fiddleheads yourself, in which case they will need a bit of a better bath and clean, you need very little in the way of preparation. Start by shaking the dry fiddleheads over your sink in a wire mesh strainer to loosen up any old, dead or dried bits. Then, immerse the fiddleheads in ice cold water and give them a good soak and rinse for a few minutes.

Remove the fiddleheads from the water one at a time and clip off the cut tip where it is probably blackened or withered from having sat. Discard the undesirable tips.

When the water is at a rolling boil, salt it liberally for your pasta (at least a tablespoon or two in your full pot of water). Most pasta will cook in approximately 8-10 minutes; add the pasta and give it a quick stir.  Let the pasta cook for approximately 6-7 minutes before adding the fiddleheads and letting everything continue to boil for another 2-3 minutes, or until the pasta is al dente and the fiddleheads are tender but not soft. Read your pasta package directions in advance! If you are using a pasta that cooks in more -or less- time, adjust accordingly so that the fiddleheads will only be immersed in water for the last few minutes. Overcooked fiddleheads are just stringy and depressing.

Drain the pasta/fiddleheads well before tossing them in the sauce.  Serve immediately.

The tantalizing twists and loops of this dish are really what make my heart swell and do me in the most. No matter how young or old you are, there is just something fun about food that curls.

As far as seasonal and regional pasta dishes go, the only way that this one could be more Canadian is if you ate it while wrestling a bear and then chugged a pint of maple syrup.  Because, you know, that’s what we do for fun around here in Canada.

(Note: that is not at all what Canadians do for fun)

(Note 2: Mind you, I DO know a park ranger who managed to intimidate a bear whilst wearing nothing but his plaid boxers and a pair of Blundstones. True story.)

(Note 3: And considering my affinity for sweet things, one day I will probably reach an all time low and go chug a pint of maple syrup to make myself feel better about life in general. So maybe that totally IS what some of us Canadians do for fun after all.)

Fiddlehead season in Ontario is almost gone, so snap them up while you still can!