Saturday, May 8, 2010

Salad Days: Arugula and Strawberry Salad

I knew arugula when. Back, before it was mainstream and cool, when it was called rugola and grew wild on my grandparents’ backyard lawn. I remember my Nonna would head to the backyard with her paring knife and plastic grocery bag to take in her harvest. Almost invariably it would wind up tossed with olive oil, red wine vinegar, and salt and pepper.

But arugula’s current popularity comes only at the tail end of a very long career. Rugola has been part of the Mediterranean diet since antiquity. The Romans were eating its leaves as a vegetable, using its seeds to flavor oils, and making aphrodisiac and medicinal compounds from the plants. It still grows wild in the Italian countryside and is often regarded as a "poor man's" green.

The reason for this culinary longevity lay in arugula’s versatility. Arugula has a very intense and mustard and peppery flavour and wild rugola especially so. This richness of flavour means that arugula can hold its own alongside grilled meats or on sandwiches, as a pizza topping, lightly sauteed in olive oil, added to soups, pastas, and risottos for a bit of colour, flavour, and nutrients, or even combined with garlic, walnuts, olive oil, lemon juice, and Parmesan cheese into a pesto. Rugola is also low in calories and rich in vitamins A and C, folate, calcium, and magnesium. Put simply: It’s really good for you too.

The most common place to find arugula is served raw as part of a salad. Arugula salads can range from the simple -- the leaves tossed in a dressing of lemon juice, olive oil, salt, and pepper -- to the more substantive. This salad falls well into that latter category. With strawberries starting to show up supermarkets at a reasonable price again, this is a chance to combine the rich pepperiness of the rugola with the sweetness of the fruit and the tang of good balsamic vinegar. The meatiness of toasted walnuts and the sharpness of pecorino romano round out the flavour combination. Rugola has come a long way from those simple tossed salads of this bear chef's youth.

Arugula and Strawberry Salad

To begin, toast about one half (1/2) cup of chopped walnuts in a dry skillet over medium to low heat. Be sure to stir the walnuts often. This should take about five or ten minutes, you'll know they're ready when they turn a light brown and the smell of toasted walnuts takes to the air. Remove them from heat and set aside to cool for another ten minutes or so. Alternatives to walnuts can include cashews or almonds as well as hazelnuts.

Next, wash and thinly slice the fresh strawberries. You'll need about two cups or, to be much less precise, two good handfuls of each. Place one handful of strawberries at the bottom of you mixing bowl and set the other aside. Blackberries and raspberries can substitute for the strawberries in this salad. The important thing is that there is a tart and sweetness to them. Strawberries though add the best pop of colour.

Cover with about two tablespoons of the best balsamic vinegar you can afford and about one tablespoon of the best olive oil you can afford. To that add a pinch of sea salt and another of freshly ground pepper. Next, add either a pinch of sugar or a dab of honey and then mix altogether. This should probably be set aside to rest for about ten minutes or so, letting the flavours of the vinegar and strawberries to get to know one another and pair off.

Another possibility is to use a lemon dressing. Combine the juice of two lemons with olive oil, salt, pepper, and honey or sugar to taste. You may also want to include a bit of lemon zest to the dressing which will impart a nice, vibrant citrus flavour to the dressing. This dressing should be left to rest on its own, and only combined with the salad just before being served however.

While the dressing and strawberries are getting to know one another and the walnuts are cooling, you'll have time to make sure about four cups or so of fresh arugula (preferably baby arugula) has been properly washed and dried. Here I'm using the baby arugula/baby spinach blend the grocery store carries and it works just as well.

Next grate or crumble about one half of a cup of the pecorino romano. Alternatives to this are a sharp goat's cheese, feta, and, of course, a good Parmesan. With the goat's cheese, you can try browning it in the toaster before adding it to the salad for a bit of extra flavour. I've also wondered how an aged cheddar, with its rich and sharp flavours would work on this salad, but have not yet experimented with it. The quality of cheese is important to the success of this salad. You shouldn't have to spend a fortune, but you shouldn't skimp on it either.

Once cheese and arugula are ready, you can begin building your salad. To the mixing bowl with the dressing and strawberries add your arugula and toss lightly. One trick is to cover the bowl tightly with plastic wrap before doing this to avoid any spillage and mess. Next, add the handful of fresh strawberries that have been set aside. Sprinkle on top with the toasted walnuts and then the cheese and enjoy.

There should be enough to serve about three people as a side and one person as a main.

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