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Arugula and radishes refresh the summer palate

Last weekend I found myself blessedly deprived of a car for two whole days. That left me with no choice but to finally tackle the salad garden and harvest this summer's first crop of arugula and radishes.

Salads from the garden have been plentiful for three or four weeks with abundant baby leaf lettuces and spinach -- and cilantro, basil, oregano and thyme to season the salad dressing.

But the arugula and radishes, both so fast-growing, had reached maturity simultaneously and demanded to be harvested at once. Tiny flea beetles had finally found and invaded the arugula patch, leaving their tell-tale pinprick holes in the leaves, and when that happens there's nothing to do but pull it up and start a new row.

(Arugula is heat tolerant and can be re-seeded every two weeks throughout the summer to ensure a steady supply. Ditto radishes, so long as they get plenty of water and some cooling afternoon shade.)

So on Saturday, I found myself with about 70 radishes and four Safeway bags full of arugula. I washed and trimmed for a relaxing hour or so, gave away half to my neighbors, then set to figuring out what to do with this plethora of spicy greens and root vegetables. I mean, how many salads can you eat before you start turning green at the gills? I realized I had no recipes calling for either arugula or radishes as an essential ingredient.

Thank Dionysus for the Internet and epicurious.com.

This fabulous, easily navigable Web site gave me 164 arugula recipes and 137 calling for radishes, most culled from the pages of Gourmet and Bon Apptit magazines. To my delight, I found recipes for arugula pesto and radish salsa. One recipe recommended adding finely chopped radishes to deviled eggs to add crunch and flavor; another made the not-so-obvious but simple suggestion that arugula be substituted for lettuce in a classic bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwich.

My weekend turned into a green and red kitchen orgy, a veritable Martha Stewart orgasm.

Here's the best of what I learned:

The simplest, most elegant arugula preparation is a salad Chef John Broening of Primitivo serves, and which I found repeatedly in the epicurious.com list of recipes. Take young, tender arugula leaves, washed and stems removed, toss gently with toasted walnuts, dress lightly with good quality extra virgin olive oil and top with generous shavings of parmesan cheese. It's perfection.

Radishes turn a gorgeous, almost translucent deep fuchsia when sauted, and go great with sweet, crisp parboiled sugar snap peas. Just boil the sugar snaps whole until crisp-tender. Saut sliced radishes in butter over medium heat for four or five minutes, until they are translucent and crisp-tender. Throw the peas in the pan, mix them together, season with salt and pepper and serve. This is a great, simple, fibrous and colorful dish.

Both arugula and radishes take well to a citrus-based, slightly sweet salad dressing. I tried my friend Laura Spear's recipe over whole leaves of arugula and halved radishes: Equal parts of rice vinegar, balsamic vinegar and orange juice, a tablespoon of soy sauce, and 5 parts canola oil, shaken in a jar until thoroughly mixed make a light, perfect dressing. Fresh, chopped herbs can be added for interest but are not necessary.

Arugula pesto is pungent and packs a wallop. Use it sparingly, but use it often. Here's the basic recipe, found on epicurious.com, culled from the November, 1998 issue of Bon Apptit:

4 cups (packed) arugula leaves

1/4 cup pine nuts, toasted

1/4 cup (packed) freshly grated Parmesan cheese

1/4 cup olive oil

Blend arugula, pine nuts and Parmesan cheese in processor or blender until almost smooth. With machine running, gradually add olive; process until well blended. Season pesto to taste with salt and pepper.

This recipe is best prepared ahead and left to stand for a couple hours, or it can be refrigerated overnight and brought back to room temperature before serving. Toasted walnuts can be substituted for pine nuts, fresh mint leaves can be added to soften the flavor. This makes a great sauce for poached or grilled chicken breasts. If you're using the pesto as a pasta sauce, add garlic cloves and crushed red pepper flakes to the mix.

Cucumbers and radishes make a perfect color, crunch and flavor balance in this recipe for salsa: Combine 2 cups finely chopped, seeded, peeled cucumber; 1 cup chopped radishes; 1/3 cup chopped fresh cilantro; 1 1/2 tablespoons white wine vinegar; and 1 tablespoon sugar. Mix together in a bowl. Season with salt and pepper and let sit for several hours is the refrigerator to mix flavors before serving. Add a chopped jalapeo pepper for some zing. Goes great with fish.

If you haven't got arugula pesto to go with your poached or grilled chicken breasts, try this cool, fragrant radish-mint chutney (also from Bon Apptit and epicurious.com):

1 garlic clove

1/2 small jalapeo chili

1/4 cup (packed) fresh mint leaves

1/4 cup olive oil

5 medium radishes, trimmed

2 tablespoons walnut pieces

Process garlic and chili in blender or processor until finely chopped. Add mint and oil, blend well, scraping down sides of bowl occasionally. Add radishes and walnuts to mixture, using on/off turns, until nuts are finely chopped. Season with salt and pepper. Spread the mixture over both sides of a boneless chicken breast before broiling, then use as a topping for cooked breasts.

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