Callas & Fiddleheads

In the midst of the winter, the callas come out. Normally, they’re preceded by the fiddleheads, the first curls of ferns poking through the pine needles.

This year, the dry weather didn’t stop the lilies in the same way that it held back the ferns, which seem to thirst for the winter rains more intensely. For the callas, you only need a little storm, then sun, and then the flash of lily appears in a clearing in the forest–a white flag going up, unfurled and cupped to catch the sunlight and concentrate it into the yellow spike within.

I go searching for wild callas in patches of open land, in ditches, and tucked in with the bamboo on the roadsides. I’d never take any that looked cultivated or cared for, or, for goodness sake, from someone’s land. But from those wild-grown clumps on the ruas and back streets and in the heart of the floresta, I select a few stems and secret them home.

The first one arcs gracefully out of a blue bottle I saved from sparkling water in Spain; the second one shoots from an empty green bottle of Alhambra beer. More collect as they come into flower everywhere–I pick one still tightly curled and watch it unwrap itself over days, going from spring’s youngest green to a lime-tipped white, then the pure taffeta like a bride’s dress. The cups tip out, sometimes releasing a hidden bug or spider that waxed all dreamy on the pollen and was trapped inside. Sometimes a bee surprises me as I tear the stem from the plant…but most of all I find a wonder in their delicate fragrance. I never thought callas carried scent before, but these do–almost like an echo of lilies of the valley, so soft you’d miss it unless you dipped your nose into one right after it bloomed. Their magic lies mostly in the graceful shapes they make on each slender verdant stalk, and how the group of them interplay, in varying stages of opening. So like each of us.

The callas come in tandem with the fiddleheads, mostly. One of the first true signs of spring in the forest: The chantrelles go back to sleep, the tiny blue flowers perk up, and the fiddleheads scroll out of the soil. You must catch them when they first pierce the ground, when those tight buds are still packed with the nutrients needed to burst forth into ferns–and when they’re still tender and succulent.

Last year we captured some in late January, and, enticed by their bright green pulling us out of winter grey, I tossed them in the old cast steel pan with a small onion sliced in thin rounds and sauteed it all in a generous knob of butter. And they tasted…bitter as hell.

Going to the Internet Sages of All Things we found that–aha! Fiddleheads must be blanched for at least 15 minutes to leech out the bitterness. So this year–a little later, in the last weeks of February–I found some that hadn’t yet spread out and brought them home. As I watched them boil I made a soy-lime-miso glaze that I’d concocted for other leafy greens–taking no chances this time around. The result? While the bitterness was long gone, what was left of the fiddleheads mushed into the glaze lacking any spirit at all. Is there a happy medium to find?

Perhaps next year. Until then, at least the glaze is good with the grelhos and other winter greens in abundance right now. We had ours with a steak and batatas fritas (Portuguese for French fries…), and the sauce made a great dip for those fries.

Grelhos with Soy-Miso-Lime Glaze, a good substitute for fiddleheads

Soy-Miso-Lime Glazed Greens

Grelhos com Molho de Soya-Miso-Lima

Juice and zest of one lime

3 tablespoons soy sauce

1 tablespoon white miso paste

1 teaspoon honey

3 tablespoons butter

Vegetable oil (with a few drops of sesame oil, if you wish)

4 cups hardy winter greens, such as kale, collards, or Portuguese grelhos, washed, destemmed and chopped coarsely

Ground pepper

  1. Heat a tablespoon or two of the vegetable oil (plus sesame oil, if using) over medium heat in a large sauté pan. Add the greens, and sauté them until beginning to wilt.
  2. Meanwhile, melt butter in a microwave or small saucepan, and mix in the soy sauce, miso paste, and honey to combine.
  3. Pour the soy mixture over the greens in the pan to coat them, and continue sautéing the greens until desired doneness, about 4-5 minutes. Remove from heat.
  4. Off the heat, toss in the lime juice and zest. Season with ground pepper to taste (you will not need additional salt, most likely). Serve immediately.