East End Days: Greens with a Kick

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An arugula Cobb salad.

A few weeks ago my husband put his first plants in our brand-new Cutchogue garden. The tomatoes, peppers and string beans are looking pretty healthy, but the baby arugula plants have grown to be almost a foot tall and tower over everything else. Arugula prefers cool weather, and its spicy aroma repels pests, so I’m not surprised that it has thrived this spring. The still-tender leaves have a peppery zip. We are harvesting them as quickly as we can, and brainstorming new ways to eat them before the plants go to seed.

Native to the Mediterranean region, arugula has been a staple ingredient in Italian, Moroccan, Portuguese and Turkish cooking for millennia. Hardy and easy to grow, it arrived in Great Britain in the Middle Ages. Thought to be an aphrodisiac, it was forbidden from being cultivated in monastic gardens across the Holy Roman Empire. Although arugula has been grown in the U.S. since it was brought here by British settlers, it didn’t become popular in American kitchens (although Italian immigrants have always grown it and cooked with it) until the 90s, when it began to replace iceberg lettuce in the salad bowls of foodies across America. Today arugula is everywhere: In a lentil and avocado bowl at Sweetgreen, on a steak sandwich at Panera, topping a dish called Chicken Bellagio at the Cheesecake Factory

Supermarket arugula is bland and boring compared to home- and farm-grown arugula. When shopping at the farm stand, look for small-ish, tender but firm leaves with no signs of yellowing or wilting. Just-picked arugula will stay fresh in a plastic bag in the refrigerator for a week or more. Here are just a few ideas for using what you harvest or buy:

Pasta with Arugula: Toss arugula with pasta, some tomato sauce and a handful of chopped Kalamata olives for a quick dinner. Always add more than you think you’ll need. The greens wilt to nothing when they come in contact with the hot pasta, so plan on 2 cups per serving if you want the spicy greens to give your dish some kick.

Arugula Pesto: Another great use for massive amounts of arugula leaves. Puree the leaves in a blender with olive oil, toasted walnuts, and a garlic clove. Stir in some grated Parmesan cheese and some salt before spreading on grilled bread, tossing with pasta, or serving as a dipping sauce for grilled chicken or fish.

Arugula Salad Pizza: Lightly dress some arugula with lemon juice and olive oil and pile it onto freshly baked pizza margherita for a wholesome and summery one-dish dinner.

Main Course Arugula Salad: Arugula pairs well with oily fish or fatty red meat, tempering the richness of the protein with airy texture and fresh flavor. Serve sliced skirt steak, lamb meatballs, or grilled salmon on top of lightly dressed greens for a light but satisfying meal.

Cobb salad, traditionally a combination of chopped lettuces topped with chicken, bacon, avocado and blue cheese, was invented in Hollywood in 1939, as a midnight snack for the owner of the Brown Derby restaurant. Since then, it’s been modified to incorporate shrimp, corn, pecans, beets, black beans, berries, and more.

I never met a Cobb salad I didn’t like. But I really fell in love with the one I made on top of a bed of my homegrown arugula. In a nod to arugula’s popularity in Italy, I substituted prosciutto for the bacon. Because the greens were astringent, I used mild goat cheese rather than a more bracing blue. Not only was the salad a nice balance of bitter, sweet, salty and tart, but it was unusually beautiful: To top it off, I scattered a few of the Arugula flowers that were blooming in my garden over each portion.

Arugula Cobb Salad

Makes 4 servings

4 slices prosciutto

8 cups packed arugula

1 cup cherry tomatoes, quartered

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

2 teaspoons red wine vinegar

Salt

Ground black pepper

1 cup crumbled goat cheese

2 cups chopped cooked chicken breast

1 avocado, sliced

4 hard-boiled eggs, peeled and quartered

Arugula flowers (optional)

  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Arrange the prosciutto on top of the parchment. Bake until crisp, about 10 minutes. Transfer to a paper towel-lined plate to cool. Break into pieces.
  2. In a large bowl, combine the arugula, tomatoes, olive oil, vinegar, and salt and pepper to taste.
  3. Arrange the arugula and tomatoes on four dinner plates or large bowls. Top with the goat cheese, chicken, avocado, eggs, and prosciutto. Garnish with arugula flowers if desired and serve immediately.

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