Monday, December 6, 2010

Astounding Arugula

Some people may not agree with the title to this blog entry. What exactly is astounding about arugula?

It seems to be one of those greens people either love or hate.  It is eminently more popular than mustard greens, if my sales are any indication...but not in my family.  No one, save me, will eat it.

I think it adds a fabulous flavour to salads, and I have been known to use it as the entire salad.  Of course that is if I am dining alone.

I remember years ago when I first started my CSA one of my customers began complaining about the salad greens in the basket.  "Something is wrong with them, they're skunky tasting!"

I aim to please, so was somewhat hurt by this comment.  But during one delivery, I identified the culprit with her as she tasted leaf by leaf the various elements of her salad....and of course it was the arugula.

Never again did those leaves grace her basket.  I understand that aversion to strong tasting greens-mustard greens and arugula rock my socks, cilantro not so much.  In fact---yuck!  I dislike (intensely) cilantro.  So an arugula dislike I can live with.

Arugula (Eruca sativa) is a member of the brassica family as well, whose many forms all derived from one single mustard so many years ago.   Also known as "Rocket", it's uses years ago were culinary, but also medicinal as well.  English herbalist John Gerard claimed that "the root and seed stamped and mixed with vinegaer and the gall of an Oxe, taketh away freckles....blacke and blew spots and all such deformities of the face."  It was also used to aid digestion and as a pain killer.

Although arugula came to North America with the Puritans, it is really only within the last 10 or so years that it has hit it's stride as a culinary star.  It has long been popular in Italian cuisine, but now is more commonly used in mesclun mixes or as a braising green here.

There are also several varieties to choose from when you are going to grow your own. There is the standard arugula, but I'm also growing wild arugula (Sylvetta) with it's beautifully serrated smaller leaves and pungency, Apollo with larger spoon shaped leaves and Ice Bred Arugula which is a hardier variety for winter growing.

Arugula is an easy crop to grow.  It is particularly fond of cooler weather and I find does well in spring, fall and winter.  In the heat of summer it tends to go to seed quickly and becomes too pungent and bitter. If this happens though, don't consider the crop a total loss.  The white flowers are delicious in salads, lending their lovely peppery arugula flavour in another form.

Best of all, arugula is an ideal crop for our Southern Ontario winters.  My hoophouse has lots of arugula growing in it, and I know, without heat, it will do extremely well all winter.  It is one sturdy green.

When I pick it, I actually pull it.  I believe it stores better when it has the root attached.

In the spring however, the danger to arugula can be flea beetles, as with any mustard crop.  The shiny little hoppers pepper the leaves with holes, so covering carefully with agriculture fabric can be a necessity.

To plant arugula, create a fine seed bed and add a good inch or two of compost.  The seed is teeny,tiny, so either scatter your seeds, or plant in shallow rows and cover very lightly with soil.  It will pop right up under ideal conditions, often in 2 or 3 days.  Keep consistently watered and in 40 or so days, you'll be in eating lots of arugula.

Arugula is also very successful as a microgreen crop.  Scatter seed in a flat or container that is filled with a very light soil less mix, water evenly (don't cover seed), put in a window(or ideally under lights), and you'll be eating those super peppery greens in a weeks time.  That enlivens a sandwich!

Arugula also makes a great pesto!

Arugula Pesto
In this recipe, the strong, peppery snap of mature arugula finds its counterpart in Asiago cheese. Blended to creamy smoothness with garlic, olive oil, and toasted pine nuts, this vibrant pesto will make something brilliant of a basic pasta meal. You can also try it tossed with roasted potatoes or steamed vegetables. If you plan to freeze it, don’t add the cheese until after the pesto has thawed. 
Makes about 1 1/2 cups

1/4 cup pine nuts
2 cups mature arugula
1/2 cup freshly grated Asiago cheese (about 1 1/2 ounces)
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
1 clove garlic, smashed
freshly ground black pepper

1. Preheat the oven to 350° F. 

2. Toast the pine nuts in a dry, heavy skillet (preferably cast iron) over high heat until they start to brown in spots and become fragrant. Transfer the nuts to a dish to cool.

3. Combine the arugula, Asiago cheese, oil, garlic, and pine nuts in a blender or food processor; process until thoroughly combined and smooth. Season with salt and pepper to taste.



Willow said...

I would definitely be interested in trying arugula!

Linda said...

It's very easy to grow-and the taste really grows on you!

Salix said...

Thank you so much for the tips about growing arugula during winter. I also love it and will try to get a small winter crop.
Like you cilantro tastes awfull to me and I have been told that it has something to do with your genes. For some people - like me - it tastes like soap!