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Surprise your taste buds with arugula salad

Fresh ingredients make this Arugula Salad a refreshing, healthful warm-weather choice. Photo by Sue Doeden1 / 2
Arugula packs a powerful health punch, offering impressive amounts of vitamins A and C, iron and calcium. Photo by Sue Doeden2 / 2

The flavor is a little unfamiliar. It's peppery. Or is it pungent? Maybe some would say a little bitter. But when you eat the delicate little greens when they are young, you will call arugula simply delicious.

I had dinner at a friend's house recently and she made a beautiful arugula salad. The bright green arugula was tossed with a few other springtime vegetables and they were dressed with a light buttermilk mixture. I was struck by how something so simple could be so exquisite and so delicious. The bright and fresh salad was a perfect antidote for the gray-day blahs I had been suffering from for days.

It's not often that I am treated to a salad that highlights this green with flavor that is hard to describe. I normally enjoy arugula in the mixture of field greens that I sometimes buy in the grocery store. The nutty and pleasantly bitter arugula joins the mix of milder greens, offering just enough flavor to let me know it's there.

Sometimes I see arugula packaged in plastic, hanging with fresh herbs in the grocery store, but lately I've been seeing it in big plastic containers or bags along with all the other fresh salad greens. It's just waiting to be eaten.

Although arugula (ah-ROO-guh-lah) has been a favorite since Roman times in the Mediterranean countries, it is relatively new to the Midwestern gastronomic scene. Arugula packs a powerful health punch, offering impressive amounts of vitamins A and C, iron and calcium.

Buy the freshest-looking arugula you can find. I always seek out the most delicate-looking arugula, choosing the smallest and thinnest leaves. Once home, swish the arugula in a sink full of water and pat it dry. I swish and dry arugula in my salad spinner. Store the dried arugula in a sealed plastic bag in the refrigerator. Arugula does not care for much time in storage. For best results, eat it as soon as possible, within 2-3 days.

You may want to add some arugula to your garden. It loves cool weather and it's easy to grow, making it most delicious at this time of year.

If you're not familiar with the taste of arugula, begin by adding it to the green salads you already enjoy. For many people, it's a green that gradually becomes a favorite. When my sons were young, I would say, "Give it a little taste. You might be surprised. Your taste-buds may have grown-up and changed since last time you tried eating this." They are adults now, but I might need to use this suggestion again when I serve them this salad.

For my copycat Arugula Salad, I used many of the same fresh ingredients that I enjoyed from my friend's salad bowl. Radishes pair nicely with arugula and fresh sugar snap peas add sweet crunch. I slice up some of the sugar snaps diagonally, and some I break open and use only the little green peas from the inside. The dressing is a fresh, new version of the sour cream dressing I make for my summer cucumber salad. I've added some fresh herbs and a little buttermilk. I normally use plain white vinegar in this dressing, but occasionally I like to replace the vinegar with juice freshly squeezed from citrus fruit. Grapefruit is good. Once dressed, the salad needs only some cracked pepper and fresh Parmesan cheese to be complete.

Give arugula a little taste. You might be surprised. Your taste buds will thank you.

Arugula Salad

1/2 cup sour cream

3 to 4 tablespoons buttermilk

2 tablespoons sugar

2 tablespoons white vinegar

1 tablespoon thinly sliced chives

1 tablespoon finely chopped flat-leaf (Italian) parsley

1/2 teaspoon dried dill weed

5 ounces arugula

2 ounces baby spinach leaves

8 ounces sugar snap peas

4 to 6 radishes, cleaned and sliced into very thin rounds

Freshly ground black pepper

Freshly grated Parmesan cheese

Make the dressing by placing sour cream, buttermilk, sugar, vinegar, chives, parsley and dill weed in a bowl or 2-cup glass measure. Whisk the ingredients together. Add more buttermilk to get the dressing to a consistency that can be drizzled from a spoon. Refrigerate for a couple of hours or up to four days.

In a large bowl, toss the arugula and spinach together. Slice snap peas diagonally and add to bowl, or remove the peas and add just the peas to the bowl. Add radish slices and toss all the salad ingredients together. Pour some of the dressing over the salad. Toss the salad gently so all the ingredients have been lightly touched by the dressing.

Place the salad on individual plates or heap it onto a serving platter. Drizzle each serving with more of the dressing. Sprinkle with black pepper and grated Parmesan cheese. Makes 4 to 6 servings.

Tips from the cook

--Crack the pepper from the pepper mill directly over the salad and use good quality Parmesan cheese. Grate the Parmesan by hand or use a vegetable peeler to shave it.

--Salads are much like soups. Use ingredients you love and make it your own. If you are not familiar with arugula, use more baby spinach leaves the first few times you make the salad. Try a variety of fresh herbs. Lemon thyme or traditional thyme and fresh mint would be lovely. Arugula is a wonderful mix-in to any tossed fresh green salad.

--The dressing for Arugula Salad is also good on fresh-from-the-garden leaf lettuce with a few grape tomatoes and a little bit of onion.

--Arugula is not just for salads. Use instead of lettuce in sandwiches and wraps. Put it on pizza. Add it to your homemade basil pesto. Toss it with pasta.

--Toasted pine nuts are a great addition to this salad, just sprinkled over the top of the dressed greens.