Anyone know that scene in Fantasia 2000, the newer one, featuring Stravinsky's Firebird?
It opens in a forest, desolate, bleached, in the third or twelfth chapter of winter. The whole world's deep asleep, hibernating, no sign of life anywhere, save a large buck. Monochrome's far too generous a phrase to describe the barren. It is bleak.
Until the green fairy toddles in. Swoops, really. She's got the whole hair-as-flowy-gown thing going on. She half-hovers, half-swoops her way across the silence, scanning the landscape, sizing things up.
Then, she strikes.
She strikes slowly, and gracefully, in the way of fairies everywhere. Also, relentless as any TIE fighter. One elegeant fingertip touches the earth, and spreads chartreuse like spilled milk. She glances here; presto: emerald. She glances there: bingo; celadon. Everything she touches, everywhere she goes, she leaves an exhiliration of green in her wake. It is extreme, exaggerated, accelerated, as cartoons tend to be. Except every April, it always strikes me more as documentary. Because that is how it is, here.
These mid-April weeks have a surreal, super-charged quality. Trees turn on. Blooms appear on bare branches. Plants dead as doornails come back to life. It's like the landscape is illuminated from within. Like someone flipped a switch. Like Frankenstein. Frankenstein, gone to finishing school.
Or, as I overheard someone say recently, "It's really greening up out there."
It's not that Spring in the Northwest isn't beautiful; it is. Arguably, objectively, more so. It's earlier, and splashier, what with those early rhodies and azaleas. But Spring is no objective thing. And Ohio knows how to milk Spring's subjective side. Big time.
It comes down to contrast. Washington's conifers soften winter's harsh, and in turn, mute Spring's arrival. When green's omnipresent, Spring's just escalation.
Ohio in winter is monk-like, all brown, all the time. That whole stark-and-barren thing. It's like someone drained the landscape. Ticked the sepia box. Forgot the color wheel. So when green re-appears on the scene, it's like a black-head-to-toe New Yorker, suddenly taken with lime and magenta. Obvious. Intense.
You think I'm exaggerating. Me, too.
But then I look back on a hike we took over Spring Break, eighteen days ago. The whole world, variations on the theme of beige, save the bright blue of the kids and the sky. Then and now? Night and day. I kid you not. Franken-fairy.
Naturally, we gorge. On the gentling air and the lingering light and the daily dialing up of color. On homework, always better outside. On replacing clocks with impromptu outdoor sundials. On an extensive dinosaur underground railroad, built over days in the backyard. In the vegetable beds. Currently vacant. (I hate to bump emancipated diplodoci, but the carrots and kale will need a home soon...)
And on salad. Oh, salad!, real salad, with real greens, the plucky, frank, so-fresh-they-bounce kinds of greens. I miss them, all winter. So much so, they apparently creep into my dreams.
I dreamt up this salad months ago, back when we used words like "wind chill" and "below". Mostly, I spend January onward, lying awake nights, dreading Spring. (I love Spring. But Spring leads to Summer. And so, guilty by association.) But when I can tear my focus away from weather and turn it toward food, I fare better. So I lay there, thinking of the first greens that would grace our doorstep, eventually. I'd read somewhere, in deep dark January, about arugula's affinity for lemon. Also, elsewhere, arugula and avocado. I could spend three sleepless weeks, contemplating that trio, alone.
For weeks, I lay there, adjusting imaginary ingredients, the way one does when sleep eludes. (Oh. Gosh. Can I generalize, just there? Do we all design fantasy salads, in the face of raging insomnia? Do you think you could just nod and smile and make encouraging sounds? For my sake?) I had it all worked out by March. I had no real arugula until last week. When our first CSA boxes landed last Wednesday, I wasted no time before setting to work, to see if my theory held, to see if my salad was truly dreamy. Or, at least, edible. (Salads composed in the mind, at midnight, succeed, I find, as well as those inspired by speed and need. Rarely, in other words. I had pizza on speed dial.)
It was. Dreamy, that is. My wee-hours salad engineering skills may be improving. It's peppery-sharp with arugula, whose bite is tempered with avocado's butter. Fennel and radish, sliced thin-as-thin, add crisp and cool-sweet and a different heat. A smattering of French lentils do what they do so well, adding pinpricks of soft toothsome savory. Pistachios, those waxen jade lovelies, bring sweetness and richness and salt and crunch. And lemon, lots of lemon, which befriends and binds everything in the bowl.
It's a subtle salad, as salads go, soft and mellow, at least on the eye. Six shades of green, save the odd rim of radish, hardly a dazzling thing. But don't let the eyes fool you; on the tongue, it's madcap, exultant. Peppered and mild, salty and sweet, tart and rich and mellow and sharp. It prickles and soothes, thrills and restores, and satisfies the lunch hungries totally. At least mine. Also, it takes, like, five minutes to make. Which leaves a good chunk leftover for evermore green ogling. See ya.
Greening Up Salad for Spring
Serves 2 as generous mains, or 4 as a side
I like to build this in layers, shaving the crisp roots (fennel, radish) into the bottom, dressing with lemon and olive oil as I go, followed by the "heavies" (lentils, nuts), and finally the tender leaves. If I leave the leaves undressed, the salad will hold for an hour, refrigerated, and need only avocado, a final dressing, and a toss, come dinner. When I eat this for lunch (as I have, thrice last week), I like to splay a thinly-sliced avocado half on the top. Each bite becomes an exercise in winkling away small slips of buttery flesh, before spearing a forkful of character and crunch. One could always chop and toss.
6-8 cups arugula
1 large ripe avocado
1/2 cup salted, roasted pistachios
1 bulb fennel
6 large radishes
1 shy cup cooked du Puy lentils**
1 very large or 2 small lemons (for 4 Tbs. juice)
kosher salt + pepper
Using a benriner or sharp knife, thinly slice fennel and radishes. Place in bottom of a large bowl, and squeeze the juice of 1 small lemon (or 1/2 large lemon) over slices, followed by a drizzle (1-2 Tablespoons) of olive oil. Sprinkle with a good pinch (1/2 teaspoon) of kosher salt. Add cooked lentils and pistachios, followed by arugula. Toss gently and thoroughly with roots, to combine and dress leaves. Halve, pit, and thinly slice avocado, fanning one half (or one quarter, for sides) over each plate. Squeeze lemon juice generously over avocado; drizzle with more olive oil, as suits; and season with additional salt and pepper, to taste. Eat, while raising a glass to Spring.
**To cook lentilles du Puy (French green lentils): bring a pot of well-salted water to the boil, then tip in lentils (1/3 cup dried lentils will do for this recipe, though I always cook at least a cup, to keep on hand for salads, throughout the week.) Turn down heat to maintain a gentle simmer, and cook until lentils are just tender, but not falling apart, 20-25 minutes (test a few, starting at 20 minutes). When finished, tip into a strainer, and let drain fully. Cool completely before adding to salad. (Run cold water over just-cooked lentils, to cool quickly). Lentils will keep, covered and refrigerated, 5 days.