But Mousie, thou art no thy lane,
In proving foresight may be vain:
The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men
Gang aft a-gley.
An’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain
For promised joy. -Robert Burns (“To a Mouse”)
Last Friday we discovered that there was a mouse in the house. Needless to say, this was a horrifying discovery; I love my home, I keep it clean and there’s something really alarming about one’s safe haven (both the apartment as a whole and the kitchen in particular) being breached by creepy-crawly outsiders. However, it was also a discovery that wasn’t nearly as surprising as it might have been had there not been the tell-tale sounds of scratching and squeaking in our walls earlier in the week as I graded the last of the Russian homework. There is no good time for a mouse to visit–it is the eternal unwanted guest, along with its repulsive cousin the rat–but the last week of the semester, when you are swamped with last-minute things and you have promised your students home-cooked food on the last day of class, is particularly bad. But, at the end of the day, it’s also survivable, even when you, like I did, rather stupidly ate half a cookie that a mouse had nibbled on (obviously, I didn’t have a clue that I was eating damaged goods; while I have preached the benefits of being bold in the past, I strongly encourage that we all steer clear of all packages of food that have been clumsily broken into). Yes, I have gone where nobody wants to go and I’ve now read enough mouse facts either to dominate one day in a random field of mouse trivia on Jeopardy or to self-diagnose (and finally be right when you want only to be wrong) that I have leptospirosis.

But even when a mouse starts paying late-night visits to your cupboards and the battle lines are clearly drawn, life must go on in all of its glory. There are always things to celebrate: friendships, birthdays, the beauty of the state that you call home, the fact that spring with all of its bounty has arrived at last (asparagus, rhubarb, strawberries!!). And so this was what we did. Sometimes, the only way to deal with your problems is to abandon them temporarily. Or, in this case, to let your dirty silverware and various kitchen utensils soak in bleach-scented water while you go off to a birthday picnic in Monterey. Although urgent, the mouse could wait. In a way, changing our plans to deal with it would only have been letting it win.
So, we packed two salads–broccoli and Marcona almonds in a vinaigrette and a Persian-inspired Rhubarb and Strawberry salad with a Mint Balsamic Dressing, the only things that could easily be prepared in our “kitchen under siege”–and went. It is no mean feat to drive to Monterey and back to Berkeley in one day, but it was well worth all the time spent in the car. It was one of those afternoons when everything was just right: the air in Monterey, although crisper than we would have liked, vibrated with the kind of freshness that you get only when you’re right next to the water; the company was lively and festive; and the food, the food was sophisticated, yet humble picnic fare. In addition to the salads, there was a wide selection of cheese and cured meats, from Mortadella to Drunken Goat Cheese, fresh fruit and a rich chocolately chocolate cake with tart raspberry filling. And then we went to the Monterey Aquarium, which, even if you’ve been there before, is still nothing short of enthralling. Where else do you get to see such 70s-inspired jelly-fish lights and leafy sea dragons?

Given what was waiting for us at home, it was rather sad to pack up and leave Monterey that evening. This small city by the sea has felt somewhat magical both times I’ve been there, a kind of refuge from worry. To pass some of this magic along, I want to share the recipe for one of the salads I made for the picnic, particularly the rhubarb strawberry salad that showcases the fleeting tastes of spring. 
This salad came to me by way of The New Persian Kitchen and, yes, I am more than a little obsessed with this book. In fact, I would happily cook all of its recipe offerings, from cover to cover (the good news is that there’s still time for me to do this). There’s just something about it that speaks to me; it highlights the flavors and things that I want to be eating: interestingly textured and fragrant dishes that feature grains, beans and herbs, and that also rely on a combination of tart and spicy ingredients. And this salad was no different. While there is a small part of me that tires of the endless combination of rhubarb and strawberries, I couldn’t help but feel that Shafia’s recipe did something even more intriguing with this spring power couple: it placed them in a salad and added not only zesty radishes to the mix, but toasted pistachios and freshly chopped mint (this also shows how far I’ve come in my troubled relationship with mint). Refreshing is hardly the right word to describe what you encounter; it revitalizes the senses and gives a palate starved for spring a more than reassuring push in the right direction. Given my fondness for this salad, I’ll be especially sad to see rhubarb go this year, but I’m at least comforted by thought that it will return next spring. 
Let’s hope the same can’t be said for the mouse.

P.S. (6 May 2013) The mouse seems to be gone, which is something worth celebrating!! It couldn’t have been done without the Greek and his father, who put their engineering skills to work to build a wall of metal grating to block the holes that we discovered in our cupboards and drawers. After much cleaning and slowly putting our kitchen back together, westerday we were happy to host a Greek Easter celebration for our friends. I remade the salad–a keeper!–and took a photo. Because it was taken in calmer circumstances, it is now the lead photo of this post. The original salad photo is still below, however.  Both have their merits.

Rhubarb, Strawberry and Baby Arugula Salad with Pistachios and a Mint-Balsamic Dressing

adapted from Louisa Shafia’s The New Persian Kitchen
yields about 6-8 picnic-sized servings

I have tried this salad the way the recipe was written–that is, with radishes–but, when I was making it for the picnic I was in such a rush that I forgot to add them.  The good news is that, by having opted for baby arugula, I didn’t lose the heat that the radishes bring to the salad. In a way, as much as I love radishes, I think I prefer the salad this way.
       I also opted to add more mint to this salad, dividing the required large handful into two and mixing some into the bowl of greens with the shaved rhubarb, pistachios and strawberries and mixing the remaining bit into the dressing. I felt that this flavored the dressing a little, infusing it with a subtle, yet recognizably clean minty flavor.

For the dressing: 
1 clove garlic, run through the garlic press
2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1/2 of a large handful of freshly chopped spearmint
salt and pepper to taste

-In a small bowl or container, whisk the vinegar and olive oil together with the pressed garlic.
-Add the mint and whisk lightly; salt and pepper to taste. Set aside and let sit for at least 20 minutes before mixing the dressing with the salad.

For the salad: 
 5 cups of baby arugula (or plain arugula, roughly torn into smaller pieces)
1 rhubarb stalk, thinly shaved
1 cup strawberries, hulled and thinly sliced
1/3 cup toasted pistachios, roughly chopped
the remaining 1/2 handful fresh spearmint
sea salt and freshly ground pepper (or, preferably, pink peppercorn and Grains of Paradise mix)

-Place the arugula in a large bowl.
-Scatter the rhubarb shavings, sliced strawberries, pistachios and the remaining half handful of chopped spearmint on top.
-Salt and pepper lightly and then toss.
-Pour the dressing over the salad and toss gently to combine.
-Serve immediately.

10 thoughts on “Of Mice and Men

  1. Oh, no! A mouse! One of my deepest fears come true. I hope you catch it soon… in the meantime, I'm glad you've had this salad to cheer you up. I've never eaten raw rhubarb, but it sounds delicious.

  2. Eek, a mouse! Such an undeserved visitor! I don't know many kitchens as immaculate as yours. But I am so glad you got away–the cake, the salad, the aquarium–it all sounds majestic! happy, happy summer to you!

  3. That salad is indeed bright and beautiful, and it makes me want to snatch up all the rhubarb I can before it disappears! Chloe's cake is so delicious and festive looking, too. And the aquarium! Seriously, I am daydreaming about heading to Monterey for my own picnic (instead of to the office) this morning…

    Having had similar experiences with mice in the past, I can give one piece of important advice: Even after the holes are all found and closed, you have every good reason to go out and buy yourself a pretty new cake stand, complete with a towering, shiny glass dome to protect whatever you keep on it. It's just not worth risking any more mice-bitten cookies! 🙂

  4. It was definitely scary, Ann, not the kind of thing you want to find in your kitchen! The cleaning was quite extensive, but I suppose, if I try to look on the bright side, the mouse made us do a thorough spring cleaning…

    And the raw rhubarb is a revelation; I don't know why we don't relish its tart flavor more. After making this salad, I really don't see the need for all the sugar we bury rhubarb in.

  5. It's hard to say, Lisa; I don't like rodents and I don't like insects. I guess there's no happy medium for me, although I am more than willing to share my space with an adorable canine. 🙂

    The salad is definitely a keeper!

  6. Thanks for commiserating; I don't feel so bad now. I know how clean you are and so if you can get mice, anybody (including me) can get mice. I guess they will always find a way in, although I'd be much happier if they just stayed in the walls.

    And, yes, it's almost like having gokiburi all over again. Or a lot of mosquitoes.

  7. My guess is that, the cleaner you are, the more easily you will be able to spot an unwanted furry friend running through your cupboards. I still can't believe I was stupid enough to eat a half-eaten mouse cookie, though. =/

    Since it seems to be gone and life has now returned to normal, I can finally say a happy, happy summer to you too!

  8. Thank you, Moriah! And I also want to buy as much rhubarb as possible (I wonder if it freezes well. If berries can easily be frozen, why not rhubarb?); I love spring, but it always reminds me how ephemeral this season and all of its treasures really are….

    If you decide to go to Monterey instead of Dwinelle one day, you have a willing companion in me! Monterey over Dwinelle any day!

    And I like your advice: since it's my birthday week, perhaps a new cake stand will be in order–one that would match the new dress I bought for the occasion yesterday. 🙂

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