Fresh, Feisty Arugula: More Than A Salad Green
Filed by KOSU News in Art & Life.
July 5, 2011
It was 1985, and I was starting high school. Like any teenager, I was anxious to fit in. So I took a few fashion-forward steps: I slipped into my Guess jeans, lined my eyes with teal green, sparkly eyeliner and got the haircut of the decade: part Duran Duran, part Pat Benatar — slicked-back sides crunchy from gel, pin-straight, spiky bangs and a whoosh of hair teased and sprayed to impossible heights on the top of my head. It was awesome.
I was not as adventurous with food. For me, exotic meant ordering fried clams for lunch on Fridays, strips only, no squishy bellies. What I did eat a lot of was salads, which typically consisted of a bowl of iceberg lettuce topped with a single cold tomato and cucumber slice — that is, except for special occasions, when a pepperoncini pepper and canned artichoke heart were added.
Things changed in the ’90s. That’s when inventive chefs introduced salads made from new ingredients such as mesclun, endive and radicchio. Suddenly salad seemed sexy. No ingredient, however, had more impact than arugula, this aromatic green revolutionized salads. Today it’s as recognizable as romaine lettuce, though a lot feistier.
Arugula is much more than just a salad green. Sautee it in olive oil and garlic for a simple side dish. Blend it with pine nuts, olive oil and cheese for a distinctive pesto-like sauce that can be tossed with either pasta or warm potatoes for a modern potato salad. To appreciate its unadulterated full flavor, enjoy it raw, tossed in a salad with salty prosciutto and sweet watermelon, scatter it on top of a warm-from-the-oven salami and mozzarella pizza, or nestle it inside a hot, gooey grilled cheese smeared with olive tapenade.
First cultivated in the Mediterranean, arugula has been enjoyed since Roman antiquity, when it was prized for its culinary, medicinal and aphrodisiac qualities. Though still most closely associated with Italian cuisine, today arugula is cultivated in countries across the globe.
It’s known as “rocket” in Britain, roquettte in France and roka in Turkey, which can be traced to the Latin eruca, which means a type of cabbage. Italians who immigrated to America called it rucola, which likely became arugula to us.
Arugula is a member of the Brassicaceae family which includes crucifers, cabbages and mustard greens — hence its distinctive hot, peppery flavor. Its peak season runs from late spring to early fall, though it’s available year-round in the bagged salad area of most supermarkets. If you have a green thumb, you can try growing your own. And if you spy some white, redolent flowers at the end of the stalks, don’t throw them away. In our San Diego farmers markets, mesclun mixes with arugula flowers can fetch $9 to $10 a pound.
In the past couple of years, wild arugula has entered the culinary scene. Wild arugula has slightly thinner, darker, more sharply fluted leaves and an edgier flavor than regular arugula. Most chefs suggest eating wild arugula raw or just wilted to truly appreciate its flavor. It’s found at farmers markets, specialty organic markets and some major supermarkets and usually costs slightly more than regular arugula.
If you buy a bunch of fresh arugula or wild arugula that hasn’t been pre-washed and bagged, wrap it in paper towels before storing in the crisper drawer of the refrigerator for no more than a day or two. Trim any thick or yellowed stalks before using, wash it well and chop it or tear it by hand.
When cooking with arugula, embrace its inherent spiciness by pairing it with complementary foods such as salty pancetta and anchovies, sweet berries and melons and acidic vinegars and fruits. Arugula pairs well with most meats and seafood, especially chicken, steak, veal and mild-flavored white fish such as halibut and tilapia.
Perhaps the simplest yet most sublime way to enjoy arugula is to toss it with extra virgin olive oil and aged balsamic vinegar, a squeeze of fresh lemon juice, a few Parmesan cheese shavings and a dash or two of sea salt and crushed red pepper flakes. Vine-ripened strawberries wouldn’t hurt, either.
While I still have short hair — a la Halle Berry rather than Duran Duran — I’m now more daring with new salad greens. A couple of weeks ago, I discovered agretti at my local farmers market. This springtime Mediterranean succulent, or water-retaining plant, looks like a cross between fennel fronds and dill. It also has a singular grassy flavor. I predict that agretti will begin showing up on menus of trendsetting restaurants soon. If so, arugula had better watch its back. [Copyright 2011 National Public Radio]