We are awash in flowers, though you wouldn't know it to page down. I am rather fond of them, too, the bashful violets and the marimekko tulips and everywhere, white pear petals, like so much spring snow.
Maybe next week. At this moment, I'm feasting on green. And yellow, and old rust, and last fall's lingering brown.
I'm not sure if it's their color or form, but I've been glued to buds and branches like some daily horticultural Mad Men. The plot lines. The character development. The drama. Unbelievable.
In the Northwest, spring is a ramping up, an amplification of that always-there green. Oaks and maples add bass notes to the evergreens' year-round melody, the bulbs add color, the fruit trees flower. It is there, and obvious, and completely glorious, but it is not stark, the way it is here.
Here, spring startles. Subtle need not apply. After months of monochrome, the simple fact of color is a little astonishing. Maybe I'm still an amateur when it comes to this deciduous tree routine, but it strikes me as terribly Wizard of Oz. There you are, all down with Auntie Em in grayscale, then the tornado drops Dorothy and BOOM! Queue the technicolor. Ohio may not have Munchkins or Jell-O-painted ponies, but she can saturate a landscape like nobody's business.
For all that, there's a gracefulness to it, an orderly re-entry, easy on the eyes. It begins slowly, the odd leaf, the early daffodils, the occasional rewind. Pacing, you know. But by April, spring outgrows its awkward-gawky stage, and hits this rather elegant stride.
Everywhere, to-all-appearances dead trees are resurrecting, right on schedule. This morning's plump bump is this evening's leaflet, wrinkled and articulate as a newborn. Branches hang a hair lower each day, with the weight of a thousand twee flicks of green. They are almost too precious to stand, until I tune back to the Reality Channel and see them as they are, endless gaping, hungry little maws. A little daunting, really. And mighty impressive. CO2 into sugar? Stranger than fiction.
The ferns are beginning their weeks-long yawn, that journey from curlicue to most excellent mock sword. There are hostas still in their corsets, and pre-peonies, and the last wizened crab-apples, finally relieved of duty.
The Japanese Butterbur's invaded the lawn. Again. It needs to be pulled, but I so admire its chutzpah, its whopping bud, its parasol leaf. I can barely thin my radishes. How can I pluck this gentle giant?
(What's this? I've just learned it can be eaten. Any pointers?)
And all of it, seemingly lit from within. Now, I know there's no internal LED thing going on here. And that rain seriously pumps up the shimmer. And that new shoots always glow a little. I would, too, under the circumstances. Still, I think there's a peculiar magic to this fleeting cast of illuminated high spring hues. (I also know John Ruskin had little use for greenery-yallery leaning folks like myself. Whatever. I always did prefer Whistler by a mile.)
But look quick. It won't last. Summer comes on fast.
By June, all this vivid will be ho-hum, color the norm, contrast a memory. But right now, there's this moment, a.k.a. April, when the landscape is handsomely tailored, distinct.
Stones are punctuation marks still, not hidden hazards, all overgrown. There are seam allowances yet between this plant and that. There's brown ground to be seen, old growth, crisp remains, patches of dirt that make everything pop. Spring is a spare, clean organized statement to summer's lush, flooded run-on baroque. I have never been spare, or clean, or organized. But I have always admired this about spring.
I think it's the juxtaposition that gets me, this coming and going, in the crosshairs. It's the rubbing up against of what's next and what was. The shock of chartreuse against dark chocolate earth. The insistence of growth against composting leaves. Raking last week, I came across a bluebell sporting an old oak leaf belt round its middle. The wildflower had grown right on up through the leaf, piercing clean through and carrying it skyward. The sheer force of that stem seemed so symbolic, so poignant. Very changing-of-the-guards. Very cycle-of-life.
Metaphysics always improve my mood when I'm still getting after last year's messes.
Much as a shaved fennel salad improves my outlook when I'm still waiting on this year's food. The seeds are in the ground. The markets will start soon. The chives, bless their hearts, are flourishing. When we ate this salad, late last week, it sat next to fresh bread and potato-leek soup, topped with smoked mackerel and chives. Our chives. Won't be long.
But for now, most fixings are still coming from afar, which suits this particular salad just fine. I think of it as a three-season salad, the two main ingredients available year-round. By all means, buy local fennel, when you can get it, but the plump California bulbs are decent year-round. The mushrooms are the ordinary, cultivated sort, their firm flesh a help for papery slices. In October, it tastes exactly of fall, thanks to the earthy, autumnal mushrooms. In January, the fennel stands in for sad leaves, winter whites for the salad bowl. And in April, right now, it's the lemon that sings, its bright sunny squinch somehow tasting of spring. (In Summer? Forget it. It's tomato season, people! But we're getting ahead of ourselves, here.)
I'm not positioning it quite right, am I? Decent. Ordinary. Forget it. Oh dear. Let's try again: we served it at Christmas Dinner. Also: I rarely eat less than three servings. I'd polish it off, all by my lonesome, but I'm always angling for leftovers. So that, too: it's awfully tasty the following day. If you can manage to keep it around.
What it is, is nothing more than paper-thin fennel, plus paper-thin mushrooms, plus paper-thin parmesan. You layer these three, in roughly equal proportions, dousing each layer liberally with fresh lemon juice and olive oil. Lots of both. And then a bit more. Also, salt and pepper. Be generous. The end.
If this all sounds a little loosey-goosey for your taste, I've added some numbers and details, below. I like a recipe, also. But I feel I should tell you I just made it up. I was introduced to this salad years ago by Alice Waters, whom I caught demonstrating it on PBS. She was shaving away on a mandoline, staring straight into the camera, thrilling over this unlikely combination in big, blowsy terms. I feared for her fingers, but I took her advice to slice thinly, season lavishly, and treat the parmesan as a fellow vegetable. (I may have made that last part up. But I'm sticking with it: be lavish with the parmesan.) And to know this salad's a balancing act, with tastebuds, not measuring cups, as your guide.
If you're accustomed to a leafy sort of salad, know this speaks in a different tongue. There's no lettuce here, though there's ample crunch, thanks to the anise-sweet crisp of the fennel. The mushrooms go almost meaty, by contrast, earthy foil for the fennel, tender sponge for the dressing. The parmesan makes me smile, just remembering. Umami wollop. Saline twang. Over, under, around, and through.
It's the anointing, though, that pulls it all together, the dressing of the layers in lemon and oil. The mushrooms are thirsty, and the fennel so thin, that they both marinate a bit, swapping atoms, and secrets. They all get a little drunk on each other, which, considering the players, is the best possible outcome.
My only caveat? It looks dreadfully anemic, even if it tastes anything but. Keep a fennel frond, and scissor it over before serving. Barring that, a few wisps of lemon zest. Please. Just scatter some green or yellow overall to pinch its proverbial cheeks. Thank you, kindly.
Shaved Fennel + Mushroom Salad with Parmesan + Lemon
inspired by Alice Waters
When I serve this salad depends on my mood, menu and schedule. Eaten immediately, each ingredient retains its own texture, which is lovely. If left to sit a few hours, everything relaxes a bit, also lovely. Refrigerated overnight, everything will soften and settle, and while I wouldn't serve it to company, I grab it instantly for lunch.
My "mandoline" of choice for thin-slicing is the Benriner, a Japanese model that is affordable, compact, and to my feel, safer than many larger, French-style mandolines. A sharp chef's knife makes an admirable substitute.
One really does need a small hunk of Parmesan, here. You won't use it all, but you will get the long, meaty curls that makes this salad sing. Grated or shredded won't deliver the same results.
1 large or 2 small fennel bulbs, a few fronds reserved
12 large button or cremini mushrooms
medium hunk of parmigiano reggiano
1 large, juicy lemon, halved
extra-virgin olive oil
kosher salt and freshly ground pepper
Prepare mushrooms and fennel: Wipe mushrooms clean, and trim stems of bottom layer. Slice stems from fennel, where the stems meet the bulb, reserving a few fronds for garnish. If outer layer of fennel looks a bit tatty, peel away exterior with a zipper. If outer layer looks geriatric (withered, browning), discard.
Prepare salad: Using a mandoline, Benriner, or sharp chef's knife, slice fennel and mushrooms as thin as you can manage. (When using the Benriner, I stop slicing three-quarters of the way through the vegetables, in defense of my fingers. Donate remainders to pizza, soup, stock or snacking.)
Using a sharp vegetable peeler (a Y-peeler if you've got one, any standard peeler if you don't), peel three dozen or so long curls of parmigiano reggiano. Do not fret over crumbling.
Assemble salad: Scatter one-third of shaved fennel on your platter, then top with one-third of shaved mushrooms and one-third of parmigiano. Squeeze ample lemon juice over all , scatter with two generous pinches of kosher salt (approx. 1/4 tsp.), several grinds of fresh pepper, and a good drizzle of olive oil (one generous Tablespoon). Repeat two more times, until all fennel and mushrooms are gone. Top with a few additional shavings of parm, a final squeeze of lemon and drizzle of oil, and a smattering of chopped, reserved fennel fronds.
Eat immediately, or let sit, refrigerated or at room temperature, a few hours.