I have an absolute infatuation with wild arugula. It’s the honest truth.
I rarely hosts guests in my home without a huge arugula salad laid out on the table, and I’ve certainly never run a restaurant without one on the menu. Crisp, pungent, and peppery, arugula’s sharpness has a knack for playing into other flavors with surprising versatility. I can throw just about anything into a bowl with a heap of farm-fresh arugula, and I know it’s going to be magnificent.
In fact, I’ve tried just about every combination in the kitchen, from persimmons with cotija, confit garlic, dates, and hominy, to fresh lump crab, crispy fried polenta croutons, and lemon preserve with coddled egg-mustard vinaigrette. But there’s one arugula recipe that has a special place in my heart, because it reminds me of that particular brand of love and chaos that comes with building a family: Arugula Salad with Parmesan.
A few years back, my wife —a pastry chef— and I decided to start our own restaurant, a cozy, rustic, farm-to-table Italian concept. I’m from Texas and my wife’s family lives in Oregon, so we’d decided to settle outside of Portland to enjoy the slower pace and North Western natural beauty. But fate had other plans. One week before we opened, we got the news: my wife was pregnant! It’s a funny sensation, being thrilled and intimidated at the exact same time. With a new restaurant to run and a new baby on the way, a slow-paced life was now solidly out of the question.
Those were some stressful days, back then. We were running the restaurant just the two of us — my wife would come in at dawn to begin baking, and I’d be in by seven, just as the restaurant began to fill with the aroma of oven-fresh cinnamon rolls. With one eye fixed on our toddler Knox, napping in her carseat on top of the bar counter, we’d hurriedly begin the process of opening for the day.
Each afternoon, my wife would have me throw a hasty lunch together with extra ingredients from the kitchen. “I don’t want anything crazy,” she’d say. “Just an arugula salad with whatever.” She worked at the restaurant throughout her entire pregnancy, and we repeated the same lunchtime routine nearly every day until she gave birth. “Yeah, just an arugula salad with whatever.” That “whatever” is what ultimately became Munchery’s arugula parmesan salad.
I love this salad for its simple, summery flavors. I begin by tossing vine-ripe tomatoes in olive oil and salt, then slow-roasting them in the oven till they’re smooth and sweet. Then I thinly slice garlic and fry it until crispy, fragrant, and golden brown. Next comes plenty of basil to brighten things up, parmesan or asiago cheese — grated fresh, of course— and a drizzle of homemade balsamic vinaigrette. But my favorite part? Finishing the dish with pecans for that perfect touch of crunch.
Like any native Texan worth their salt, I have a weakness for pecans. I’ve got great memories of cracking seemingly bottomless bagfuls of the nuts with my grandpa as a kid, sitting in the kitchen as warm evening breezes rustled the curtains and cicadas sang outside. I live in Los Angeles now, but when I’m cooking I like to channel my Texan roots and break out the classic country music — usually George Strait, Hank Williams, or the immortal Johnny Cash.
When the meal is ready, I kick back, turn up the volume on “Folsom Prison Blues,” pour myself a glass of sweet tea or a whiskey neat, and heap some arugula onto my plate. One taste of those pecans — crunchy, buttery, and subtly sweet, contrasting perfectly against the pungent, peppery greens — and my mind begins to wander, lost somewhere halfway between Oregon and Texas.