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That arugula time of year

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Have I ever told you how much I love this time of year? Yeah, the weather's great. The days are longer. I can go hiking and motorcycling again. The wildflowers are just beautiful.

But the real reason I love spring is arugula. Thick rows of it are coming up in my garden now, along with various lettuces, spinach, kale and chard.

I love making salads and cooking with spring greens. There is absolutely no replacement for picking young greens out of the garden and eating them. What you get in stores will do much of the year, but spring is when I realize what a poor substitute those week-old lettuce heads and salad mixes really are.

Arugula, also known as rocket, is my favorite green. Its peppery, somewhat bitter taste adds spice to everything it's served with. Romans thought it an aphrodisiac. More prudent cultures banned its spiciness. It's often included in mesclun and Italian salad green mixes.

It's great right out of the garden with a little olive oil, vinegar and sprinkling of parmesan or pecorino cheese, terrific added to a sandwich of as a final topping after a pizza is pulled from the oven.

My favorite is with pasta. Added to fresh tomatoes or a smooth tomato sauce just before serving, arugula adds a strong measure of healthy freshness and spicy excitement to my linguini or orecchetti (hat or ear-shaped noodles).

A delicious pasta sauce can be made with just olive oil, garlic, lemon and arugula. You can substitute arugula for basil and make pesto.

Arugula is very easy to grow. It tends to bolt quickly in hot weather, which is why I like it best in spring. But keep it shaded in summer and keep planting new rows and you can grow it well into fall.

It's usually one of the first crops available at farmers markets.

I've been eating it every night. Last night's meal was a fresh Italian sausage, sauteed in a little olive oil with sliced bell pepper, a little onion, a couple sliced Crimini mushrooms and crushed garlic. I added crushed red pepper flakes, fennel seed.

When the sausage was browned, I added chopped Roma tomato, then a few ounces of red wine (white wine is equally good). A minute later after the alcohol went up in steam, I added a large handful of washed arugula and then covered the pan with a tight lid.

I served the sausage and vegetables over polenta, a grating of pecorino Romano cheese and a glass of soft red wine. Delizioso!

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