As I said, Spring Break afforded no time for a big road trip. But a little one, à la minute?
That's another story.
The drive from Columbus to Chicago is a little like Seattle to Spookaloo, plus a bit. To, say, Smelterville. Only, when you get there, instead of a pop. of 627 plus a Wal-Mart, there's a bean. An enormous, way-larger-than-life bean. Mirrored. Under which one can walk. And in which one can spy a few buildings. Maybe 627? The human pop. is considerably more. So: like Smelterville, only different.
We'd made the trip once before, and so knew we could do the there-and-back in four days. We also knew we (still) wouldn't scratch the surface.
We weren't wrong.
Though we did rough it up, a little.
We made time for those spots we'd missed last time, for sea jellies and soaring dolphins and Seurats and Cézannes, and although I've a chronic travel version of eyes-bigger-than-accompanying-stomachs—Itinerary bigger than sightseeing appetites? Bucket list bigger than little spirits?—in retrospect, I think we managed a fine patina.
And anyway, so much of getting away, of going elsewhere, is not the Upper Case destinations at all, is it?, but all that plays out at the interstices. Like three restraint-reared kids in utter shock over travelling by car without seatbelts. ("It's only a mile. And a cab's like a school bus! And HOLD ON TIGHT.") The cold, fun fact of eating ice cream on Navy Pier, without worry. Because when snowflakes are falling as you eat, melting is a non-issue. Hypothermia, however... The bliss of hotel showerheads. (Why are they always, always so fine?) The free hysterics that come of reading room service menus, aloud. "$4.00 for a sliced banana? $15 for PANCAKES??"
We ate elsewhere.
The fact of fog.
Good grief, I miss fog.
The Northwest has fog. Ohio, nearly none. Chicago, it seems, is closer to Seattle, on this one. Must be the water. I gorged on the stuff.
The relentless baroque of big cities. I rather love it, at least in small doses. I love to bear witness to the crush and the busy. To inhale the steady thrum of so many souls. To traipse under the exoskeleton of the El, as if walking under a train was okay, as if walking under a train was half-normal. To not inhale while passing eleven dumpsters full-to-bursting with yesterday's lunches. Some plurals are bigger than others. That last -es contains multitudes. Ripe, intense multitudes.
I love to see block towers and found-stick forts and crazy couch cushion contraptions play out in concrete and glass and chutzpah and air. Those lives lived, vertically. Skies scribbled with steel.
It is good to gawk. To behold. To be dazzled. To send up a mad cheer for the merry potential of truly fantastic public art.
And to get the green light to spend a delicious 87-minute hour, alone, enrapt, at the Art Institute. (My sense of time gets a little squishy when in the company of Mr. van Rijn. The man makes the sun look like a total slacker on the subject of light.)
And it is good to remember what effort it is, to get up, and go, and all that implies. Still and always. Routines are disrupted. Meals, unpredictable. Beds and baths and all things in between, unfamiliar. Spirits wear thin. Energy unravels. And yet. In the end, we get that rare glue, that common locus, that overpriced banana joke, that only shared adventures beget.
And that great exhale that is coming home.
It never fails. Every trip ends thus: the big people emptying the car, the little ones, scrambling, to their respective rooms. Not so much to avoid the work, as to sink into their familiar. Legos. Beds. Stuffed animals. There is a deep happy, at least for us five, in closing the book on any adventure. Homebodies through and through, we are, at least as glad to be back, as to have gone.
Naturally, my familiar involves sink and stove. Or, in this case, barren fridge and salad bowl.
Produce is scarce as donkey's wings, en vacances; the hunger, upon return: vast. This salad centered on kumquats and beets is one way I greedily feed the beast.
I have gone on before about the joys of beets and citrus, as have, well, all the world's beet-eaters. The combination's classic, mineral-sweet meets juicy-tart. But this particular pair is something special, something fetching enough to have brought me back, time and again, all this long winter.
I threw it together one night, late last year, in a fridge-cleaning/salad-making flurry. Most salads inspired by purge and speed are equal parts edible and forgettable. If I'm lucky. They check the box. We move on. Neither rearview mirrors, nor reviews, allowed.
Not this one. This one stuck. This one recurred, again and again. This one led to scrawled notes: "spinach, beets, pecans (mapled!), chèvre (mitica!!), kumquats!!!!!!!". (I am shamefully parsimonious with capitals, quantities, and complete sentences, when I scrawl myself recipes. As parsimonious as I am generous with exclamation points. Not proud, on this point. Just honest.)
It is just a small twist of the lens away from every other of its ilk. But oh, it's a fine twist, a fate I lay squarely at the feet of the kumquats. Kumquats, if you don't know them, are quirky little curiosities. Their insides are pucker-sour; their peel, candy-sweet; their overall, not unlike an inside-out orange-lemon. As such, they are always eaten entire, and typically, I just pop and chomp.
But I had half a box in the fridge, that night, and so added a fistful, flicking seeds as I sliced. I expected second-tier orange-understudy. Expect little; gain much. The bright insides set off the beets gloriously, the band of rind a sweet aromatic ping. Pecans, toasted—or better, maple buttered—brought their own maple-sweet, and inimitable crunch. Goat cheese—I've been crushing hard lately on these snowy little discs labelled "Capricho de Cabra Plain Mitica", which I don't understand a word of, but which I'd eat every day, and sometimes do—does what goat cheese always does, pitching in cream and rich and the faintest of funk.
All set on that soft nest of spinach, here the boxed supermarket stuff, next week: the first real local deal! If I'm lucky, there may be a slight overlap between kumquat's waning season and spinach's rising one. Not a huge leap into Spring, perhaps, but like the crocus, a grand little one.
Kumquat Beet Salad with Pecans + Chèvre + Spinach
Beets! I've never loved pre-cooked beets, always finding them off-tasting, or weirdly slimy, or both. And roasting them is so dang easy. But! I recently came across pre-cooked beets at Costco, and mercy! They were lovely! I can't say the same for any others I've tried, but I'm now on my third round of these, and am sold. I'll still buy and roast around-here beets, come Fall, but I'm so glad to add these to my arsenal. And if cooked seems a cheat? From Dorie Greenspan's Around My French Table: "For years, every time I'd return from a trip to France, I'd call Julia Child to report on my adventures. Of course, she'd always ask me what I'd cooked and what I'd eaten, and she'd often ask, with a winsome sigh, if the food was still wonderful. Then one day she asked a question that came completely out of the blue but was so Julia: 'Can you still get cooked beets at the market?' she asked, adding, 'I've always loved that and can't understand why we don't do that here.' Indeed." WWJD? (What Would Julia Do?) Cooked beets. Amen.
8 cups baby spinach
2/3 cup toasted or mapled butter pecans, roughly chopped
12-15 kumquats, sliced, seeded
1/2 cup chèvre or feta, crumbled
4 small or 2 medium beets, cooked, cubed (1 1/2 cups)
I like my vinaigrette on the tart side, extremely so, where beets are concerned, and so usually go with a 3:1 vinegar:oil ratio. This is a modified version. Use your favorite house dressing, or the one that follows, adjusted to suit.
3 Tbs. mild vinegar (white wine, sherry, cider)
2 Tbs. extra-virgin olive oil
3/4 tsp. kosher salt
In a lidded jar, add vinegar and salt, and swirl to dissolve salt. Add olive oil, replace lid, and shake to emulsify. Set aside.
Just before serving, place all ingredients in a large salad bowl. (Alternatively: all ingredients, save beets, can be assembled 2 hours in advance, and refrigerated. Add beets just before serving, as they will bleed.) Pour 2/3 of (just-shaken) dressing over all, toss gently, and taste. Add remaining dressing and/or season to taste, toss once more, and serve up.