We were somewhere between Barcelona and Madrid, barreling through the stark hills which the locals called mountains. It was hard for my Northwest self to see "mountain" in the modest peaks out either window. They looked more like foothills, like Issaquah, like Snoqualmie, than like Rainier, which was my mountain archetype. But semantics aside, they were mesmerizing, so scrubby, so rugged, so different from all I knew.
I remember riding with my nose pushed up against the chill glass, playing with that funny focus that trains invite. Pick a point well ahead, affix your eyeballs, and follow it with your head until fwoop!, it's all gone.
The prize in this solitary, high-speed game was the spying of villages, rare and sudden. We whizzed through tiny, anonymous towns by the dozen, small congregations of gray roofs, incongruous as toadstools. They were enchanting, mystifying, a little terrifying, stubborn little outposts against all that stone. Up each main street, without fail, plodded a few elderly women, market-bound with net bags. Backs curved with age, coats invariably black, hair always encased under waterproof scarves.
I remember how unwittingly they resembled their surroundings: concave huddled clusters, pointy-topped, pewter-hued, the women, the mountains, the both of them. I remember being impressed they all wore the same uniform. Mostly, I remember those identical plastic rain scarves, tied tight under absolutely every last chin. And nothing but sunshine, not a raindrop in sight.
(By now, you serious students of Spain, and those with any passing knowledge of geography, will have noted that there are no Pyrénees between Barcelona and Madrid. They run, of course, due North of Barcelona, dividing Spain from La Belle France.
I know this. I do. I even spent a good hour, re-visiting Spanish topograhy, trying to square my memory with reality. I had a serious talking to with my recollections, pointing out that in all liklihood, we were traveling through the Sistema Ibérico. It was unyielding: Barcelona, Pyrénées, Madrid. Memory's funny that way, able to move mountains.)
But the main thing I remember was the teenage girl across the aisle. She was beautiful, lean, lanky, like all Spaniards of a certain age, her hair deep and glossy as a good oil-cured olive. She was sixteen, maybe seventeen, perhaps five years my junior, which seemed like a lifetime to my newlywed self. I was amused by the way she lay strewn across the seats, arms here, long legs there, hair tossed back into the row behind. Somehow, she stretched her ninety-two-pound self over three rows, and across the aisle, also.
All this, I likely wouldn't have noticed, were it not for the singing.
Mostly, she chatted quietly with her friends, in rapid-fire Spanish, not one word of which I understood. But she was also plugged into a walkman (three hundred years ago, like I said), and every now and again, in that hushed train car half-full of strangers, she would open her lips and without warning, sing, "IT'S MY PAAAAARTY, AND I'LL CRY IF I WANT TO, CRY IF I WANT TO, CRY-Y-Y-Y IF I WANT TO, YOU WOULD CRY TOO IF IT HAPPENED TO YOO-OU..."
Really out loud.
Singing's a misnomer. Belting's better.
In perfect English, Lesley Gore gone brunette. Utterly un-self-conscious. Shameless. Excellent.
All of which is my roundabout road to what's above, and what's to follow:
More winter love.
I've already admitted my affection for winter's gauzy light, barren beauty, and endless indoor play. Though I don't think I've mentioned that the Best Play-Doh Toys Ever can be found in the foot massage section at Daiso (Westlake Center and Lynwood, for you Seattle folks). After the kitchen drawer, of course. And since I know I'm in the minority: Do you see, you Spring Peepers, all the infant shoots, buds and signs?
But three salads in as many months? With March just begun? You bet. Because it's my blog, and I can dwell if I want to. And I do, I so do.
Thing is, I collect salads the way some women collect shoes. Like wedges and espadrilles and thigh-high boots and gladiator sandals, I go giddy over the permutations, the possibilities. I trot out salads for every season, soul and mood, and this next one sits resolutely in the Still Awaiting Spring camp. (My footwear assortment, for the record, is downright disreputable.)
Equal parts celery, romaine, and Asian pear, it's a concession to March, when fresh is still far off. In Elsa Beskow's Around the Year, March is an Old Man, a metaphor I'm pretty sure she stole from late-winter's produce aisles. Because that is how everything feels right now, grizzled, a little wizened, past its pull date. I am never as grateful as I am in March for those hardy souls that manage a smile, even after a long-haul.
Concession, wizened, manage a smile. That wasn't a ringing introduction, was it? Let me put it this way: I cannot stop eating this salad. I meant to get an Asian pear picture for you, but blazed through half a dozen before snapping one. So I bought two more, just for this purpose. Then inhaled two more bowls. I am helpless. Imagine.
Concession, please note, is not spelled c-o-m-p-r-o-m-i-s-e. This tastes like celebration, makes March look good.
The Asian pear is important, here, a sentence I never thought I would write. Asian pears are odd ducks. Technically a pear, with the texture of an apple, an ungenerous soul might call them wet, dull and bland. Mostly, I have avoided them, because mostly, I've been that ungenerous soul. But March is not mostly. I somehow brought home six. And discovered they have a soulmate in celery.
I've always been fairly celery ambivalent, also, keeping it on hand for soups and stews and little else. But one night, the two found their way into my salad bowl, and by golly, if they aren't fruit-vegetable doppelgängers. Both bursting with water, which translates as C-R-U-N-C-H, they are, sliced thin, a most excellent ensemble. Ordinary apples won't do here.
Romaine goes in also, albeit as a minor player. I do love a salad blueprint, flexible, democratic, but this is not one of those. This is a salad of particulars, and proportions. Many salads are mostly lettuce, and many of them are lovely, but lettuce can be a bit bossypants. We're doormats that way, we Americans, thinking lettuce a synonym for salad. It is not. In this one, the lettuce can be left out entirely, and I've made it that way often, and liked it, very much. In the end, I deceided I liked it better with, but do not let your lettuce get out of line.
Because the soul of this salad, it's come-hither finger, is the riveting conversation between celery and Asian pear. It is, in my humble opinion, dreamy. They have an identical taut juicy crunch, celery's saline snap yin to the pear's crisp sweet yang. They get along famously, and in equal measure, should make up the bulk of the salad themselves.
As for the balance, think lemon and nuts, great lashings of the both of them. Hazlenuts are my very favorite here, earthy and mysterious and softly sweet, but only if they're good hazlenuts. I don't say this to be precious, but because hazlenuts are troublesome, turning coat faster than any nut I know. Fresh, they are glorious. Rancid, ghastly. Taste several, and if any strike a wrong note, speak your condolences and chuck 'em, post haste (and freeze your next batch, to save their sweet souls). Toasted pecans or walnuts will stand in nicely.
As to the lemon, don't be alarmed by the quantities. I often invert the classic acid:oil ratio, opting for 3 times as much acid as oil. Not because I'm fat-shy (um, hardly), but because I'm tart-friendly. I have a ferocious sour tooth, as well as an abiding fondness for produce flattered by citrus. And as it happens, lemon loves celery and apple pear. Somehow, lemon makes celery sparkle, and turns up apple-pear's ordinarily mild-mannered personality. In return, they somehow nudge the lemon toward sweet, like sugar's been added, like a miracle berry. I don't undestand it. I can't explain it. I am only the messenger, here to tell you, toss these stalwarts together and the whole gang stands taller, prouder, livelier, perkier, than five minutes earlier. As do I, eyes tilted toward spring.
P.S. Turn your eyes to the horizon, also. This one's not much of a looker. But boy, it's an eater.
P.S.S. Did I mention I've more salads waiting in the wings? And I'll just keep belting them out, when I feel like it. I'm shameless that way. Forewarned, forearmed, FYI.
Celery, Asian Pear + Romaine Salad with Hazlenuts + Lemon
Serves 2 hungry souls, on the cusp of spring
(or 4 reasonable sorts, as a side)
This salad would be more beautiful if everything were bigger, the pear slices larger. But I like the bite-a-bility of it, and find the celery and Asian pear benefit from a sliver-thin slice. Even with this fussing, which you can take or leave, it is, at most, a five-minute affair.
6 plump, long stalks of celery, sliced 1/4" thin
1 Asian pear, sliced 1/8" thick, then cut into thirds
1 heart of romaine (pale interior leaves), sliced 1/3"
1 cup sweet, fresh hazlenuts, toasted 10 minutes in a 350° oven, roughly chopped
3-4 tablespoons fresh lemon juice, from 1-2 large, plump lemons
1-2 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt, plus more to taste
several grinds black pepper
Place sliced celery, Asian pear, romaine and hazlenuts in a wide bowl. In a jam jar, squeeze lemon, then add salt and swirl to dissolve. Add olive oil, cover, and shake well to combine. Pour over veg, and toss well to coat. Add pepper, taste for salt, adjust as needed, and dig in.