It's been a long winter.
April's well underway, I know, but there's a bit of Winter still, stubborn, loitering. It will pass, because it always does, and I think this is why we welcome Spring. Here it comes, one big china shop bull, thrashing about with its reckless green and fierce growth. Spring has no time for loiterers, busy as it is with its same old shock and awe. It never fails. That's something, right there.
What always stands out to me, about Spring, beyond its insistence, is the contrast. The contrast with what came before, to be sure, days warmer and longer, air lovelier. But more, the contrast on the ground, and overhead.
Chocolate earth and chartreuse shoots. Extravagant blossoms glue-sticked to stark branches. Grass stains on knees unsullied since Fall. Purple Pasque flowers, all frill and fancy, sitting pretty in unmade beds. The onslaught of blooms in cherries, plums, pears, that storm the skies, despite April's showers. Then storm the ground after, silk on cement.
By Summer, it will all be history, blizzard, blizzard, everywhere. Bugs, bees, flowers, leaves, crowding out every corner. And this is good, too, the over-the-topness of it. We all need a little excessive abundance. And without Winter, would we even notice? I think it was Shakespeare who argued after the tedium of every day, a holiday. Or maybe it was Jimmy Neutron. Anyway.
Spring's for the noticing. It's that slender moment wherein we can peer into both worlds, the full and the empty. It's when we can see the contours, the outlines, what was, what is, what will be. New against old. Fresh against faded. Bright stings of color, against sudden green. I don't know about you, but I like a little bas relief in my days.
And, it seems, in my salad bowl.
Salads have roared back into our lives in recent weeks, with the starting up of our Spring CSA. I cannot remember feeling more starved for greens. Which is good, since the first weeks look like this: greens, greens, also greens, and more greens.
To be fair, there were also sun-dried tomatoes, and eggs, rich as butter, big as bread. To be more fair, each green is distinct, and excellent: spinach, mizuna, mesculun, arugula, greens I don't even know the name of. I thought I knew every green thing.
I was wrong. I am pleased.
Naturally, I've been eating salads daily. Being me, I'm always eating salads daily. Difference being, between November and March, the salads are fractions of their former selves. All winter, I buy the boxed stuff, and weary heads in yellow bands, craving always that chlorophyll, that crunch. But by the time they reach me, they're not lettuce, not really, but Leaves that Look Like Lettuce. Sad shadowy things, weary, tepid.
These lately greens? So not tepid.
These nearby greens are plump, glowy, vital, thrumming with the same sun that's sneaking up on our days. They would palpitate, if they could. They have stems that snap and leaves that resist and personality all over the map.
They have flavor. Imagine.
I am in Happy Salad Land.
In no small part, because these greens brought back a salad I once made, and loved, almost. For years, I made platters of beets and lentils, tossed in a zizzy vinaigrette. Sometimes there were peppers, roasted and silky; often cheese; occasionally nuts. It was good, really good, almost excellent. But I never could quite banish the almost. Until now.
Greens. The thing needed greens! Great, lofty lashings of real-deal greens. [Doh.] The original version, I realized, had thrilling flavors and excellent texture but—and I don't know how to be any more polite about this—it was stodgy. Dense. A bit frumpy. Sturdy? Sturdy. Yes, sturdy.
I like sturdy in soups. Not so much in salads. I do, however, like thrilling and excellent in salads.
So I re-worked this lost favorite, starting with the greens. Into a bowl of plucky fresh something—arugula's ace, all peppery spunk, although any small spring leaves will shine—you add lentils, du Puy or beluga, the small tender sort that hold their shape. Beets, roasted, cubed. Ordinary oranges, also bite-sized. Toasted walnuts, as many as lentils. Some sort of white cheese, firm-fresh and salty, cotija, feta, ricotta salata. Not strictly necessary, but awfully nice.
It's a riot. The beets and oranges are differently sweet, one intense tender, the other, juicy bright. Both play off the confetti of lentils, earthy, a bit flinty, savory, so good. The walnuts, an unsung hero in my humble, bring their fantastic buttery crunch. The small snowfall of cheese adds the odd saline wink. And those plucky greens, they fix everything.
They bring bounce and loft and breathing room to everything else in the bowl. The heavy-hitters, those beets, those oranges, get to stretch their legs a little. The lentils, which once slumped into a stolid heap, now flit about, discrete, lovely, tucking themselves into crannies and corners. And the leaves themselves are no neutral backdrop, no styrofoam filler to the main event, but vivid little waifs, peppery or sweet or bitter or mild, depending. Anything but bland. A good slosh of vinaigrette, heavy on the vinegar, and the sweet beets are tempered, the lentils invigorated, the lettuces brought fully into the fold.
It's a treat.
It's a cusp-ish affair, a last fling with storage roots and winter citrus, a first dance with Spring's fresh young things. Which, calendar notwithstanding, is about where I stand right now. I can't help notice it's a pretty fine place.
Spring Greens with Beets, Lentils, Oranges + Walnuts
Choose the green French lentilles du puy, or the black Beluga lentils, here. Both cook to a firm, tender texture, and hold together in the simmer and salad. I keep roasted beets and cooked lentils on hand, often. Having them cooked and ready makes me feel wealthy beyond measure. Each takes two minutes of hands-on time to prepare, and holds beautifully in the refrigerator, all week. With a stash of both, this is a 10-minute salad. See end of recipe, for instructions on toasting walnuts, roasting beets, cooking lentils. You'll need around 1/2 cup dry lentils for this recipe, though I always cook extra, 1-1 1/2 cups dry, at a go. As with any salad, quantities are flexible.
Also? Both beets and lentils drink up dressing like champs, and I like this salad best when I douse both, warm, in the vinaigrette. That said, I usually keep my beets and lentils plain, for my anti-vinaigrette children. Whatever suits.
for the salad:
8 cups arugula, mesculun, etc.
2 large roasted beets (or 4 small)*
2 large oranges
1 cup cooked lentils du puy (French green) or black beluga*
1 cup toasted walnuts, roughly chopped*
1/2 cup feta, cotija, or ricotta salata, crumbled
for the dressing:
3-4 tablespoons sherry, red wine, or other mild vinegar
generous 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1 tablespoon maple syrup or honey
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
Make dressing: In a jar with a lid, add sherry, salt and syrup, and swirl several times to dissolve salt. Add olive oil, screw top on tightly, and shake shake shake to emulsify. Set aside.
Make salad: Peel roasted beets by rubbing their skins loosely, with clean fingers or a paper towel. Skins will slip right off. Cut beets into bite-sized cubes. Set in the bottom of a large salad bowl. Add the cooked lentils to the beets, and pour a few tablespoons of dressing over both. Toss gently, and set aside. Peel oranges, then chop into bite-size bits, around 1". Add to bowl. Add chopped toasted walnuts, crumbled cheese, and leaves to bowl. Drizzle several tablespoons of dressing over all, and with clean hands, toss gently and thoroughly. Taste a few leaves, and adjust dressing volumes and seasoning, to suit. You may have dressing left over.
Eat immediately, in the company of spring.
To roast beets: Trim leaves, if attached, leaving an inch of stalk, and set aside for soups or sautées. Wash, and place in a small baking dish (Pyrex pie plates work beautifully) with a half-inch of water, and cover tightly with foil. Bake beets in the oven, with whatever else is baking, anywhere from 275º to 450º, until a knife glides through the biggest beet with ease. This may take anywhere from 45 minutes to an hour and a half, depending on beet size and oven temperature. Test after 45 minutes, and if you meet any resistance, return to the oven again, adding more water if needed and sealing foil tightly. Most of my beets take around an hour at 400º. When done, cool slightly, top and tail, then roll each beet gently in a clean paper towel: the skin will slide right off. Use immediately, or store in the refrigerator for later use. Roasted beets keep beautifully for 5-7 days.
To cook lentils: In a medium saucepan, bring 4 cups water plus 1 teaspoon salt to a boil. Add lentils (1/2 cup for this recipe, up to 1 1/2 cups, if making for later), turn heat down to a simmer, and cook lentils 25-30 minutes. Sample a few at 25 minutes for doneness, and pull from heat when your entire sample is wonderfully tender, and still intact. Drain.
To toast walnuts: preheat oven to 350°. Scatter walnuts on a rimmed baking sheet, and toast 10-12 minutes, until deeply fragrant and slightly golden in color. Do set a timer. Nuts burn in a heartbeat.