This year, as we all know, spring has come early, as evidenced by the migratory birds who swoop down on my lawn to efficiently pick it clean of suddenly uncovered bugs and bits of whatever else they eat. They arrive en masse and scatter at the drop of a leaf, but return within seconds to peck at the dirt with increased diligence. I've wasted some time watching them (and coveting their focus), so I know.
In contrast, fat robins bounce all over the yard, solo, as if looking for something they've lost. The sedum has erupted into tight green roses and the chives have already sent up thin spires (their green onion flavor sweeter now than anytime in the season) and then there are the trumpeter swans, whose return to the creek is about two months early.
These swans, their honking as inelegant and brassy as ever, turn our creek into a boisterous main street in the grip of spring fever. In pairs of two they swoop the creek, flying low, bellowing to their friends hanging out on the ground, whipping around at the end and taking the return flight slow. They cruise like teenagers, with unrestrained enthusiasm, totally oblivious to bystanders.
With all these spring hormones loose in the air, I want to make something equally dynamic for dinner, something bright with life force. And so I went to the store to stare at the heads of cauliflower wrapped in plastic and the bags of carrots and potatoes, the leeks obviously separated from their dirty fronds so long ago. I've spent all winter squeezing the life and flavor out of these things--and I've thoroughly enjoyed it, too--but at this point, late March, the end of the world calendar for cold-climate vegetables, I looked at them with--I can't help it--total disappointment.
And then I saw the oranges. Redemption. I wanted to make a vibrant salad--but nothing with onions (too sharp) or black olives (too expensive, too distracting), which are the traditional elements of the Middle Eastern orange salad. So I made up something new last night from a mixture of sliced Cara Cara oranges and Minneola tangerines. Alone, they were both amazing, dripping with juice, their forthright acidity perfectly moderated with the smack of ripe sugar. I ate one of them au naturel, then sliced the rest and laid them out on a bright turqoise platter--it doesn't get any more spring-like than South Beach aqua--and doused them with extra-virgin olive oil: my best, a gift bottle, a golden elixir. Then I splashed on some more. I tipped the plate and dipped a spoon tip into the pool of liquid and decided that tart orange juice and good olive oil was an intoxicating soup--and would it work for a cleanse if I promise to drink a pint of it every day? I could try.
The rest of the salad accumulated like people arriving to a party. Salt and pepper were sprinkled, to make it clear that this thing was savory. Aleppo pepper went down, for moderate spice, and then crushed pistachio nuts from Arizona, totally in-step for both flavor and color, and parsley leaves, hardly chopped, strewn like herbal grass clippings, ceremonial.
This week I realized that I much prefer for spring to arrive when the citrus is still at its peak. Can we do this again next year?
Orange Salad with Extra-Virgin Olive Oil, Pistachios and Chili
4 oranges (a mix of Cara Cara and Minneola Tangelos)
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/2 teaspoon Aleppo pepper (substitute 1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes)
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground coriander seed
4 tablespoons best extra-virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon chopped parsley
2 tablespoons crushed pistachios
Lop the tops and bottoms from the oranges and then slice off the skin and pith in long, curving swoops. Trim off any remaining white pith with the butt end of the knife.
Slice the oranges crosswise into thin rounds and arrange on a platter. Sprinkle with salt, pepper, Aleppo pepper (or a few pepper flakes), ground coriander seed, olive oil, parsley and pistachios.
Let the salad sit for at least 30 minutes before serving.