We were walking after dinner, as we do, once the weather warms past, say, freezing. These walks aren't, for the most part, anything remarkable: short, familiar, pretty rote. Some days are all-in; others, forced marches; most, same-old, same-old. We can (and do) sometimes stray, take different turns, go farther, go longer. But what makes them easy and often is that unthinking, old rut quality. It's what we do. It's why it works.
Anyway, there we were, traveling an old groove, when Henry came to a halt. Verbally. Physically. I didn't hear his soles screech, but they might have, given his level of emphatic. Whereupon my factory-issue Automatic Mom Insta-Situation Scan quickly kicked into gear, processing possible scenarios: Shoe untied? Sliver? Blister? Friend sighting? Fallen bird's nest? Rabid dog? Car careening? Homework left in locker? Lego wedged in sidewalk? Found penny? Freak tsunami?! UFO?!?!? (This preliminary inventory took approximately two milliseconds.)
Wrong, on all counts. Turns out, he was staring at the sunset, a saturated thing, one vast sherbert gradient, shameless, gaudy, obviously Photoshopped. Except: not. And really, the sky was just the last straw. Everywhere, every bulb was clamoring for attention, from the last daffodils to the earliest tulips. The plum trees, always the spring ringleaders, were full-on, with countless crab apples lining up in lock-step behind. As we piled up behind him, a human fender bender, he looked up, looked around, and completed his thought: "It should always just stay this way. Just like this. Like right now. ALWAYS."
Yeah. What he said.
After that stretch of celestial drama, last week was a wonder of gentle breeze and perfect air, seventy-degree days and garden afternoons and knees caked irredeemably, exquisitely with dirt. The world was doing its Fantasia thing, colorizing itself before our very eyes. I developed a Moore's Law of Spring, which states that in April, in Ohio, the number of inches on every living thing doubles, daily.* Brown is barely in our vocabulary, any longer. The growth is mind-boggling.
*(Kids included. I just ordered a new round of jeans for my eldest. From the men's department. Size 18's now being flood pants. This is so wrong on so many levels.)
Meanwhile, Zoë asked me this, the other day: "Do you know why I try to do so many things in a day? It's because then I can do so much in my life."
What she said, too.
Because this is this month, in a nutshell. The glory, and the gutting excess of un-dones. The breathless spectacle and towering to do's. (Leave it to two people under ten to nail why this week's been such a challenge.)
Transitions are messy, as evidenced by every suffocating surface in my home. We bounce between flip-flops and mittens in a week. We live (and sleep) like school's out, then study long past late. We've not yet left firm schedules behind, but are straining to enter the slack of summer. We're strung between seasons, a situation which can only and ever be taut. I'm old enough to know this; not (yet) wise enough to remember. It's only standard-issue Spring, the raggedy excellence of April. I should just add it to my calendar.
Instead, I've been doing the next-best thing: binge-listening to Krista Tippett's On Being, via the NPR podcast. I first learned about Tippett from my friend Megan's magazine, Cake&Whiskey, for which I write. (It's a wonderful thing to work with a publication that always returns fourfold what you give.) It's a rascally show, as eclectic as it is quietly wonderful and annoyingly unsettling. I can't begin to list every excellent episode I've heard, though this hour on listening generously; this spot-on take on online life (and how we drive our kids to it); and the extraordinary ordinary Desmond Tutu come to mind. His laugh alone is worth the listen. Also: Indigo Girls, Mary Oliver, L'Arche and the science of attention. Folding laundry has become exponentially better.
Anyway, at some point, someone in some episode (sorry; see binge-listening, above) made the distinction between "human being" and "human doing". This is so awkward.
I mean, did your mental LP just scratch, too? Like bad-scratch, the ear-curdling kind? Because man, do I love my lists. My concrete progress and clear results. My clean surfaces and checked boxes and copious, enumerated done deeds. My unwavering belief that the measure of a day is what gets done.
Honestly. How do you even measure what gets "been"? How do you even talk about it? The grammar's broken.
Nothing gets done in April.
But I grudgingly bravely bet there's been a lot of "being".
On one front, I adore April unequivocally and absolutely, and that's the eating. April is when our Spring CSA begins, when a farmer's foresight, back in deep February, and the gentle coddle of sheltering greenhouses, begins to pay much-appreciated dividends on our dinner table. With overnight freezes still threatening tender things, there's not a great deal growing here, yet. But those first kales and chards, those earliest eggs, are such a happy jolt to the system. After a winter of sad clamshell lettuce, a bag of the fresh stuff rivals August's tomatoes.
My vegetable drawer tends, therefore, to look like a medley of near and far, Spring across many latitudes. Recently, several Springs came together in this verdant, excellent heap of vegetables. I can't imagine what to call it other than a mess. I also can't imagine many things I'd rather eat.
The idea is that simplest of techniques, a slow adding of ingredients, a steady building of flavors. You begin with a good knob of butter, and enough sliced leeks to fill a skillet. As you butcher the asparagus into bite-sized bits (such an under-used notion; so much more user-friendly than spears), the leeks melt, magically, into almost nothing. A poke here, a prod there, to unhinge layers and expose surfaces, and soon enough, the sturdy leeks succumb to the butter and salt and heat and emerge tender, sweet silken noodles. Time to dump in those chopped spears!
And so it goes, slice and add, slice and add, the chopping dovetailing with the cooking, from the hearty alliums and asparagus, to the lightweights, the chards and greens and peas. Alongside those latecomers, you glug in some heavy cream, not a lot, just a dish-changing splash, and a good squeeze of lemon, and enough salt (taste, taste!) to liven up the whole. And oh, is it lively.
For all its slump and khaki, its horrible posture and unfashionable hue, this dish (Fricassee? Sauté? Braise? Mess. Yes.) dances on the tongue. It does that thing slow-cooked dishes do, that alchemy thing, stone-into-gold stuff. The oxalic asparagus tempers the greens' faint bitter, which in turn rounds out the leeks' sweet. The cream-lemon-salt trifecta of seasonings, so simple, so spare, elevates everything, loosening up juices, aiding and abetting their mingling, raising the overall discourse of the dish. It's all very "Go, Team!!", and hard to quantify. Like a lot of good things.
Here is what's easy: working out what to do with your mess. Serve it alongside deep coral salmon, or slow-roasted chicken, yours or the store's. Pile it over long-simmered polenta, or under soft-scrambled eggs. Or both. Tuck it inside an omelet. Thin it with broth, top with more parsley, and now you have soup, chunky or blended. Boil and butter noodles, and stir that whole pan into this one. Dinner doesn't get better. Last week, we tucked heaping spoonfuls into crêpes, which tasted like Spring in a blanket. Naturally, I would like to leave a list, complete and exhaustive, of every good option. But let's just leave it at this: there are so many ways to enjoy this mess, which, like this season, I love so much.
A Mess of Spring Vegetables
This is more blueprint than recipe: swap in slivered snow peas, or artichokes if you're brave, or another green, or more leeks and no peas. Baby carrots, quartered, would be fantastic. Or young turnips, sliced thin, with their greens. Shop your fridge, and your farmer's market. Fresh nutmeg would be ravishing, here. Finally: this looks like a lot of leeks, I know. Trust me on this one.
2 Tbs. salted butter
6 medium *or* 4 large leeks
1 lb. asparagus
1/2 lb. chard, kale or spinach
1 cup peas (frozen petite, or fresh)
1 rounded tsp. kosher salt + more to taste
splash of water, stock or wine
1/4 cup heavy cream
lemon, zested + juiced
In a large skillet, melt butter gently over low-medium heat.
While butter melts, prepare leeks: cut away root, and tough dark green ends, leaving white and all tender pale green. Next, halve leeks lengthwise, then rinse well under running water, fanning layers to remove grit. Leeks are sneaky; be thorough. Once clean, cut leeks crosswise into 1" slices. Add to melted butter, along with 1 teaspoon salt. Toss gently with butter to coat, and leave to melt over medium heat, smooshing a few times to separate layers, and stirring to expose new bits to the fat and heat. Stir occasionally, while you prepare remaining veg, adjusting heat if needed to prevent browning.
Trim tough ends from asparagus, then slice into bite-sized, shy 1" bits. When leeks have collapsed and are headed toward translucent, around 5-7 minutes, add chopped asparagus, and toss well to mingle. Continue to cook the two veg together, another 5-7 minutes (thicker spears will take longer), while you prepare remaining ingredients. If leeks and asparagus begin to look at all dry, add a splash of water, stock or wine, to loosen. Just a Tablespoon or two. Your goal is not to caramelize, but to braise and intensify their glorious juices.
Wash and trim greens, removing any tough ribs or stems (I love and keep chard stems, but lose tough lower kale stems). Slice greens into ribbons, 1/2" or so. Taste a few bites from the pan: when the leeks are silken like buttered noodles, and the asparagus almostdone, and al dente, add the greens (and fresh peas, if using; frozen go in a few minutes later), stirring them to coat. Continue to cook 1-2 minutes, then add cream and frozen peas, and stir to incorporate. Turn heat down to low, let simmer another minute or so, then stir in a heaping teaspoonful of lemon zest, and a good squeeze of juice, 1-2 teaspoons. Don't overcook. Your peas should stay green; your greens, emerald.
Now, heap a good spoonful into a bowl. Taste. Really taste. The seasoning that happens next is everything. You'll likely need a bit more salt, possibly more lemon, perhaps more cream. Once everything tastes exquisitely of itself, you are done. Sprinkle the chopped parsley over all, plus another good hit of lemon zest, and dig in.