Friday, 19 July 2024

The Veggie Girl: Arugula

Veggie Girl Esther Oertel discusses using arugula in this week's column. Courtesy photo.



Arugula has been a staple in Italian cuisine for centuries, but this peppery green has only been known in the U.S. since the 1970s, when it was imported along with other exotic Mediterranean salad greens like radicchio and Mache.

It achieved culinary fame in the 1990s, when it became a popular component in the California Cuisine cooking style.

If spinach is a somewhat predictable southern gentleman, then arugula is a brash, showy thespian.

It has a taste that’s at once bitter, peppery, mustard-like and somewhat nutty.

Of the six tastes – sweet, salty, bitter, sour, piquant (hot, like chili peppers) and savory (also known as “umami") – bitter is one that is not natural to our North American palate. For that reason, arugula for some may be an acquired taste.

In addition to the leaves, the flowers, young seed pods and mature seeds are all edible. The ancient Romans used its leaves as a salad green, its seeds to flavor oil and made medicinal compounds with the entire plant.

It was once thought to be an aphrodisiac; in fact, there is evidence of its seed being used in aphrodisiac concoctions as far back as the first century A.D.

Arugula, a member of the mustard family, has long stems that open into slender, irregularly shaped leaves. They remind me of dandelion greens, a relative of theirs that shares their bitter taste, but in stronger form.

Watercress, another relative, tastes similarly peppery, and arugula’s spiciness identifies it with its cousin, the radish.

Arugula blossoms add a burst of mild piquancy to salads.

It's a component of mesclun, a salad mix of young greens that originated in the Provence region of France. Originally, mesclun contained chervil, leafy lettuces, arugula and endive, all in equal proportions, but modern versions contain a variety of other greens, as well.

Arugula is native to a wide swath of the Mediterranean region, from Portugal and Morocco to Lebanon and Turkey. Cultivation of it has increased since the 1990s; prior to that it was mainly gathered in the wild.

In Britain, arugula is known as “rocket,” which is probably derived from the French word for it, “roquette.”

It’s high in vitamins A and C and has an amazingly low two calories per ½ cup serving.

Baby arugula can be found at the supermarket in premixed bags of salad greens and occasionally in packages on its own. However, arugula in its mature form may be harder to find in most markets, probably because its pungency increases with growth.

Thankfully, it can be purchased at Lake County farmers’ markets. I bought a handful of mature arugula from Doug Mooney of Full Moon Farms at Lakeport’s Wednesday night farmers’ market, which I enjoyed in a pasta dish a couple of nights later.

Baby arugula with its toned-down spicy taste is delicious alone in salads, but if using mature leaves, it’s a good idea to mix them with milder greens, such as butter lettuce, unless fruit (or a fruity dressing) is used in the salad to balance the flavor. Pears are often matched with arugula, and in Lake County that would make a nice late summer salad.

I really enjoy a salad with greens such as arugula that offer strong and diverse flavors. When the greens sing, a simple dressing of olive oil, lemon juice or balsamic vinegar and a little salt and pepper is all that’s needed.

Sliced fennel bulb, red onion and oranges often join arugula in salad recipes.

To prepare arugula as a side vegetable, sauté washed leaves in a little olive oil (with some garlic, if desired) to the point where it just begins to wilt. A squeeze of lemon adds flavor and helps neutralize bitterness.

The sautéed arugula can also be tossed with cooked pasta, olive oil and local goat cheese for a main dish. If desired, add kalamata olives for an additional flavor punch and garnish with pine nuts.

I sometimes add chopped arugula to pasta water just before the end of the cooking process to blanch it for a few minutes. It gets drained with the pasta and dressed with whatever sauce I’m using that evening. (With the Full Moon Farm arugula, I used a hearty puttanesca sauce, which worked well.)

Arugula can be used in many recipes in place of spinach to add pungency to the dish. For example, use arugula in place of spinach on a pizza. As with spinach, add it just before it comes out of the oven so it doesn’t burn and dry out.

Jamie Oliver, one of my favorite celebrity chefs, likes to grill rocket (as he calls it) in an aluminum foil packet with Swiss chard, a bit of olive oil and a squeeze of fresh lemon juice. Throw the packet on top of the outdoor grill and the vegetables will steam to beautiful tenderness.

Like with spinach, arugula can be used in some recipes to replace basil, such as in pesto and bruschetta.

To make pesto, blanch arugula in boiling water for a few minutes, then plunge it into an ice water bath to stop the cooking process. The blanching process decreases pungency, though some prefer to use raw arugula leaves in their pesto.

When the arugula has cooled, drain well and use in place of basil in your favorite pesto recipe. Arugula pesto is particularly yummy on pizza topped with mozzarella and Parmigiano-Reggiano cheeses.

To make bruschetta with arugula, sauté diced Roma tomatoes with olive oil, salt, pepper and garlic. Add chopped arugula, stir, and off heat, add diced sun dried tomatoes and fresh shredded Parmesan cheese. Chill for about four hours before serving over toasted baguette slices.

The recipe I offer today is a grilled fig and arugula salad. The sweetness of figs and saltiness of prosciutto complement spicy arugula leaves beautifully.

While figs aren’t yet in season (they will be later this summer), I couldn’t resist sharing this recipe for your future use.

Grilled fig and arugula salad

8 large fresh black mission figs or 12 smaller green figs

1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil plus extra for brushing figs

1/3 cup plus 3 tablespoons aged balsamic vinegar, divided

Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

1/2 pound arugula

1/2 pound Ricotta Salata cheese, grated (Ricotta Salata is a salty Italian sheep’s milk cheese that is often hard to find. Crumbled feta cheese or grated Parmigiano-Reggiano can be substituted.)

1/4 pound prosciutto, julienned

Rinse and trim stem end of figs and split lengthwise.

Whisk olive oil into 1/3 cup balsamic vinegar and season with salt and pepper. Toss arugula with vinaigrette.

Lightly brush figs with olive oil and season with salt and pepper. Grill or broil figs one minute on each side. Remove figs from heat and toss with remaining 3 tablespoons Balsamic vinegar.

Place figs on a bed of greens then sprinkle with grated cheese and prosciutto and serve.

Esther Oertel, the "Veggie Girl," is a personal chef and culinary coach and is passionate about local produce. Oertel owns The SageCoach Personal Chef Service and teaches culinary classes at Chic Le Chef in Hidden Valley Lake. She welcomes your questions and comments; e-mail her at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.This e-mail address is being protected from spam bots, you need JavaScript enabled to view it .

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