Spicy Arugula Salad
With finals rolling around, all of us college kids are going a little stir crazy, so it’s nice to get back to basics. For some, this means junk food and caffeine. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a huge fan of salt & vinegar chips and Starbucks Doubleshots, but last night, I decided to relax my frazzled brain by reminding myself of a time when things were a little less crazy. Exactly one year ago, I was saying goodbye to Rome, where I had been living it up for five months. Nearly half a year filled with daily (okay, hourly) gelato runs and the best cheap wine ever is hard to give up, but I reluctantly boarded the plane that took me away from my European life and back to my American one.
Well, coming back was a bit of a shock. Food tasted weird and the “gelato” was crap, not to mention the whole English language thing. I distinctly remember one of my first dinners back at home in Los Angeles, as it was one of my standby favorites: Homemade pesto and pancetta pizza with arugula salad. The pancetta tasted flavorless and the arugula was, for lack of a better word, flaccid.
Back in Rome, arugula, or, rucola, is picked when it was young, crunchy, and full of spice. It tastes peppery and the little stems have the perfect bite. The miniature leaves were hard to get onto the fork because they were so sturdy. Like perfectly al dente pasta, as I learned, the leaves came alive off the plate instead of wilting into each other. Now, you all know how much I love Trader Joe’s, but my arugula obsession was hastily thwarted by their measly excuse for leafy greens.
I swore off the stuff for a while, until I recently discovered that my local corporate grocery store, Shaws, sells “baby” arugula. I don’t have the Roman stuff to compare it with, but let me tell you, this stuff is good. It’s got the peppery kick I missed and comes in a plastic box, just like it did back in Roma.
One of my favorite meals to make back in my via Nomentana apartment, just outside the city, was a simple one: rucola, fresh cherry tomatoes from my vegetable guy on the corner, sautéed chicken breast, and goat cheese (when I could get my hands on it). It sounds simple, but one of the best lessons I learned in Rome (other than not to walk down dark streets alone at night) is that the best meals involve very few but very high quality ingredients. I spent many nights in Rome with a big spicy arugula salad, a glass of wine (or two), and good book, worrying not about meetings, work, or any other stressors that fill my brain today.
With one too many Kettle Chips in my system and an obnoxious end-of-semester to-do list, I was more than thrilled to re-create my go-to Roman dinner, complete with crunchy, spicy arugula. The recipe is simple, and as long as you avoid limp arugula, you’re golden. Feel free to add some fancy stuff to the salad like sliced grapes, candied walnuts, or homemade breadcrumbs. Just make sure that whatever you do, you relax. It’s so easy to get caught up in our crazy lives, but it’s important to get back to basics and bask in the glory of delicious, fresh foods. Don’t worry, the salt & vinegar chips aren’t going anywhere.
Makes one serving
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
3 cloves fresh garlic
1 boneless, skinless chicken breast
½ teaspoon sea salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 teaspoon red pepper (like cayenne)
2-3 cups baby arugula
1 small handful cherry tomatoes
Goat cheese to taste
More olive oil for drizzling
1. Using a microplane zester or a sharp knife, zest or mince garlic.
2. In a small skillet, heat 3 tablespoons olive oil. Once oil is shimmering, add garlic and sauté for about 1 minute.
3. Add chicken breast to skillet and sprinkle with salt, black pepper, and red pepper. Flip and repeat. Sauté for about six minutes, until thoroughly cooked, flipping occasionally.
4. Slice tomatoes in half.
5. Place arugula and tomatoes on a large plate.
6. Squeeze lemon juice and drizzle olive oil over salad, tossing to coat salad with dressing.
7. Crumble goat cheese over salad.
8. Place chicken breast, unsliced, on top of salad, discarding burned garlic bits.
9. (Optional) Enjoy with a good book or magazine. My pick is naturally Bon Appétit.