When I was a kid we went on long road trips, criss-crossing the country in cardinal directions. West from Baltimore we crossed Roger's Forge and the snowy Appalachian mountians to visit family in Tennessee for Christmas. North to Maine was the worst trip, involving the terrible highways and traffic of the Northeast corridor. Due South, to the family beach house in South Carolina, was the best journey because my friend Hollis and I would excitedly anticipate the signs for South of the Border, that cheesy sombrero'd crossing between the Carolinas. We spotted the signs in the excited hopes that our parents would let us stop and do whatever was advertised, only to be disappointed every year when we were denied anything but a bathroom break.
My mom loved taking backroads, prolonging our trip with winding paths through small towns where signs announced bingo night and shops advertised "Perms and Peelers." She packed snack boxes that we ate in the moss draped oak trees of old church cemeteries (cemeteries were always clean and green went the family saying) and stopped at general stores for fudge and road side stands for peaches.
I spent most of these trips reading books in passenger's seat, fiddling with the radio, but often simply watching the rolling landscape go by and allowing my mind to wander. Those images, of picturesque red barns in the snowy hills, or low-slung fried chicken shacks in the deep South, are what populate the America of my childhood. Often, I would write stories in my head, propelling plots and character lines and along in an abstract rolling jumble for the duration of 10-hour trips.
Maybe that's why for me the travel space, the odd time continuum in which we get from one place to another, has always been a great space of creativity. The time to stare out the window on a road trip or from a train car, the seclusion of a long plane ride, a place to read books and scribble ideas in notebooks and arrange words in your head. I feel more and more that real-life encroaches on these spaces now, that the stress of long work weeks means I'm more likely to tune-out and watch a movie on a plane than to read a book. But I still find the space on vacations, I carry a little notebook where I jot down ideas and sketch dream houses, and come up with recipe ideas I want to try. This recipe is one that found its way into my notebook back in October while wandering around the Sicilian countryside.
The notebook entry, an equation for a winter fattoush with brussel sprouts, reads as follows:
lettuce -- brussel sprout leaves
tomatoes -- persimmons
cucumber -- fennel slivers
sumac -- dried sour cherries
mint -- dill
pita chips stay the same, otherwise it just doesn't feel like fattoush to me!
Brussel Sprout Fattoush
This is a beautful jeweled salad for winter. If you don't have dried sour cherries I imagine pomegranate seeds or dried currants could be good substitutions. The salad is also good without the fennel, if you don't have any on hand.
4 cups chopped brussel sprout leaves (from a medium-sized bag of brussel sprouts)
2 small firm-ripe Fuyu persimmons
2 heaping tablepsoons dried sour cherries
1 1/2 large thin pita breads (about 10-inches in diameter)
1/4 of a small fennel bulb
1/4 cup olive oil, plus more for the pita chips
salt, black pepper
optional: a few sprigs of dill, chopped
1. Preheat oven to 400 F. Tear the pita bread into pieces and scatter on a rimmed baking sheet. Drizzle some olive oil lightly over the pita and toss to coat. You don't need to saturate the pita, but a little oil adds some nice flavor and crispness. Sprinkle the pita with salt and place in the oven to toast for about 7-10 minutes. Watch the pita carefully so that it turns brown but does not burn. Set aside to cool.
2. Meanwhile, mix together the juice of the lemon, the quarter cup of the olive oil, and a good pinch of salt in the bottom of a large bowl. On a large cutting board, very finely sliver the brussel sprouts with a knife into thin segments. You can also do this with a mandoline, but I find a knife to be safer and easier. When you have a big pile of your sprout leaves (about 4 cups if you're into measuring), add them to the bowl with the salad dressing and toss to coat. You want the sprouts to sit in the dressing for about 20 minutes before serving so that they soften.
3. Next, slice your fennel into thin ribbons on a mandoline and add to the sprout leaves.
4. Peel and chop your persimmons into small dice. Discard the weird tough white part inside the persimmon.
5. When ready to serve, add the persimmons, sour cherries, pita chips, and dill if using, to the bowl and stir everything around to coat. Taste for seasoning. Add some more salt and some cracks of fresh black pepper before serving.