Real Food Right Now and How to Cook It: Arugula

What do you get when you place a bowl of iceberg lettuce in front of a salad-loving American born after 1985 ? A blank stare, quite possibly. (Like gifting an eight-track player to a member of the mp3 generation.)

There’s a better chance that today’s youngsters are far better acquainted with mesclun (aka mixed baby greens), of which arugula is a major component. 

In just one generation, the bitter leafy green has gone from obscurity to celebrity – and ultimately, ubiquity – replacing ye olde iceberg as the salad-y default. While we older folks plowed through our pale green wedges doused in creamy bottled dressing, arugula was minding its own business in immigrant backyard gardens – a humble and ancient weed-like herb from the Mediterranean basin, its apparent birthplace. These days, arugula is part of the common culinary vernacular, available everywhere imaginable, including under the Golden Arches. Could this be the (re)dawning of the Age of Arugula?

A Brief History

Although a relative newcomer to North American crisper bins, arugula has been around for millennia, dating to Biblical times. The oroth mentioned in the Book of Kings (II 4:39-40 ) is believed to be arugula. The Jewish Talmud also references the green, as both food and medicine.

From its earliest days, arugula was considered first and foremost an herb with all-purpose healing properties. In his first century AD work, Materia Medica, master herbalist Discorides recommends eating the seeds to increase semen production, and Pliny the Elder recommended the seeds as a painkiller. Well into the Middle Ages, arugula was widely regarded as an aphrodisiac.

Factual Nibbles

On Ischia, an island in Italy’s Gulf of Naples, arugula (where it’s known as rucola or rochetta) figures into rucolino, a type of amaro, or digestive liqeur. The liqueur is beginning to make appearances on menus this side of the pond.

In Northern India and neighboring Afghanistan and Pakistan, mature seeds are pressed to make taramira oil (aka jamba oil) that is used in the kitchen for pickling and in the bath for dry skin and scalp. The leaves are used as animal feed.

This reporter’s unscientific research reveals an arugula absence in American cookbooks through much of the first half of the 20th century. (It’s notably absent from two seminal works – the 1973 paperback reprint of The Joy of Cooking, and the 1961 first edition of The New York Times Cookbook by Craig Claiborne.) But it makes a big splash in the iconic Silver Palate Cookbook, published in 1979, that includes a classic recipe for arugula salad with balsamic vinaigrette. In a sidebar, authors Julee Rosso and the late Sheila Lukins give a shout out to the newly rediscovered green: “We cross our fingers that arugula on its own will soon be available regularly in your area. Try the farmers’ markets first, where it will be sold loose or in big bundles.”

In 2007, arugula was at the center of political controversy when Senator Barack Obama made a remark on a presidential campaign stop in Iowa about the price of arugula in Whole Foods Market that prompted the opposition to cast him as an out-of-touch “cultural elitist.

Cultivation

Botanically, arugula is known as Eruca sativa. It is a flowering plant in the Brassicaceae (better known as mustard) family, which means it’s related to broccoli, cabbage, radish and watercress.

Before being christened arugula, eruca seems to be its etymological mother, spawning derivative names including roqueta (Spanish), roquette (French), Rucola, ruca or ruchetta (Italian) and rocket (Britain and other English-speaking parts of the world). In Arabic, it’s known as jirjir or gargeer.

In its database, Plant Resources of Tropical Africa (PROTA), a Netherlands-based NGO, has documented arugula’s migration to many parts of Africa: “Mauritania in the west to Ethiopia and Eritrea in the east. It is especially popular in Sudan.”

Environmental Impact

Although not listed as a mass-scale crop by the USDA, arugula is big agricultural business, particularly in the organic sector. Because of its popularity, arugula is sold in pre-washed bags or clamshell containers by supermarkets and big box retailers. Due to the massive scale of the production, we urge washing the greens anyway. In February, there was a nationwide recall of pre-washed organic baby spinach due to possible E.coli contamination. The same could happen to arugula.

Given the choice, we prefer arugula from as local a source as possible, often easy because it has become a farmers’ market staple. Better still, arugula is ridiculously easy to grow, even in containers. Depending on your growing zone, you could have an arugula harvest in less than two months.

Seasonality

Although available year round in supermarkets, arugula is traditionally a cool weather/moderate temperature crop, so think spring or early fall. (Plant those seeds now for spring harvest!) Arugula doesn’t mind drought, but it does not tolerate heat. Once temperatures climb, the leaves will bolt and get bitter and stems will grow thick and caterpillar-like.

Characteristics

Peppery. Nutty. Sharp and acrid. Bitter, like watercress. These are all fair characterizations of arugula’s flavor profile, depending on the age of the leaves and how it was cultivated. Mass-produced “baby” arugula in pre-washed sacks tends to be very mild.

So is arugula a salad green or herb, as ancient thinkers originally believed? Most cookbooks in this country refer to it as a salad green. But herbalists and herb-centric cooks like Georgeanne Brennan see it differently. (Arugula is described as a green versus woody herb in her Mediterranean Herb Cookbook.) I like how garden expert Jack Staub makes sense of the confusion in his 2008 book, 75 Exceptional Herbs For Your Garden, where he writes, “is another of those edible plants that, like sorrel and the docks, exist in that leafy shadowland between vegetable and herb.”

Nutrition

Despite what all those Internet searches tell you, arugula is not rich in Vitamin C or calcium, nor does it come close to the nutrient density of its salad rival, spinach.

Where arugula excels nutritionally is in the antioxidant department. Arugula is rich in Vitamin A in the form of beta-carotene, but it’s also a mother lode of a disease-fighting flavonoid called kaempherol. According this 2004 study, arugula’s protective powers are off the charts. It has been studied in Saudi Arabia for its ability to treat gastric ulcers.


What to Do with It

The things one can do with raw arugula are endless: on a sandwich, in an omelet, on top of a just-out-of-the-oven pizza, as a bed for grilled fish or meats, mixed into pasta, as a garnish for soup. Boiled and pureed, it’s great as a pesto, or mixed with ricotta cheese for some lovely ravioli or lasagna filling. As for salads, it plays nicely with any number of ingredients, both fatty and acidic. I love pairing arugula with seasonal fruit – pomegranate seeds, blood oranges or mandarins in the winter, strawberries and red onions in the spring, tomatoes and garlic at the autumn harvest. Dairy lovers, think goat cheese, thin shards of Parmigiano-Reggiano or your favorite blue.

One of my favorite cooler-weather flavor combinations is pear, blue cheese, walnuts and sunflower seeds, both rich and earthy, while we pine for the arrival of spring.

What to look for

Be on the lookout for firm leaves without any yellow or signs of mushiness.

Storage

Like most tender greens, arugula is highly perishable and needs to be used within a few days of purchase. (Of course, if you grow your own, you can harvest as you need!) Keep in a damp towel until ready to eat. Plastic bags tend to create a moist environment, inviting the mush.

Cooking Tips

Arugula is notoriously sandy. It is not enough to rinse under running water and call it salad. Here’s what you do: Chop root ends and some of the stems and place in a large bowl. Fill halfway with cold water. Lift arugula out of the bowl and dump water (and residual sand). Repeat, until the water is free of sand. This may take three or four attempts.

If using raw, please make sure arugula is thoroughly spun dry. Wet arugula doesn’t take to vinaigrette very well and quickly clumps up like a lint ball.


Recipe

Pear-Arugula Salad

From The Meat Lover’s Meatless Cookbook by Kim O’Donnel  by arrangement with Da Capo Lifelong, a member of the Perseus Books Group.  Copyright 2010.

Ingredients
4 to 5 cups arugula (about 1 bunch), washed thoroughly, dried and trimmed as needed
1/8 teaspoon salt, plus more to taste
1 tablespoon juice from a lemon, lime or grapefruit
2 ripe Bartlett pears, trimmed as needed and sliced thinly
½ ; cup of your favorite blue cheese, chopped or crumbled
½ ; cup toasted walnuts and pecans, chopped
¼ ; cup toasted sunflower seeds
Extra-virgin olive oil that you love

Place the arugula in a wide salad bowl. Sprinkle with the 1/8 teaspoon of salt, and with tongs or salad hands, turn to ensure even coverage. Add the citrus juice, and turn with the tools to distribute evenly and moisten.

Add the pears, cheese, nuts and seeds (if using) and gently toss all the ingredients until well integrated. Drizzle the oil over the salad (a trickle, not a rainfall), gently toss again and taste for salt-acid-fat balance.

Makes 4 servings.

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