Add a New Dimension of Flavor to Foods



Rick Wetherbee

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(Eruca sativa)

The distinctive arugula, a well-loved Mediterranean native, is known by many names throughout Europe: The Italians call it rucola and the English know it as rocket, while the French prefer roquette.

This herb’s identity crisis doesn’t end with its many aliases. Some call it the culinary chameleon — at times assertive, yet often subtly spicy. The young, tender leaves are delicately sweet with a buttery-smooth texture and an understated peppery taste enhanced by nuances of nutty flavor. Older leaves are more assertive, with a distinct peppery tang reminiscent of a sharp cress or pungent mustard. In contrast, the tiny white flowers reveal a new dimension of culinary versatility, tasting more like a delicate blend of sesame and almond.

Throughout European history, arugula has been prized for both its leaves and seed. A popular wild and cultivated herb, the piquant green commonly was tossed into mixed salads and has long been a favorite in Italian cuisine. The seeds — which were used in aphrodisiac concoctions and as a flavoring for vinegars, oils and sauces — also found favor with the Greeks, Romans and Far Eastern cultures.

Today, arugula remains a culinary classic, especially in the Mediterranean regions where it is enjoyed fresh, cooked and as a popular pizza topping. This Old World salad herb never really caught on in the United States until the 1990s, when it began gaining popularity as an indispensable ingredient in mesclun and mixed green salads. More recently, gourmet and home chefs are using the versatile green to season a variety of foods, including specialty dressings and pesto, stir-fries and pasta, and signature sandwiches, as well as in recipes featuring eggs, potatoes and rice.

Young, tender leaves offer the greatest versatility, and can be used fresh or enjoyed lightly sautéed or slightly cooked. The mature leaves can be used as a substitute for chard, though arugula’s taste is unquestionably spicier. Depending on the growing conditions and age of the leaf, the degree of pungency can vary quite a bit. But its assertiveness is tamed when heated or cooked, so soups and stews are an ideal match. And don’t overlook arugula’s delicate flowers, which make a wonderful garnish for most any type of salad — green or otherwise — as well as a tasty and unusual accent on puddings, vegetables or fruit dishes.

Leaves of cultivated varieties are typically spoon-shaped when young, appearing broadly lobed as they grow. Strains of the wild form have thin, deeply divided leaves. The plant eventually grows to about 2 feet high or more, producing an erect raceme of four-petaled white flowers — occasionally pale yellow — tinged with violet at the center.

Arugula’s easy care, adaptability and fast growth (30 to 40 days from seed) only add to its versatile charm. As a cool-season annual, arugula performs best when sown and grown in a sunny location during the cooler temperatures of spring and fall, though it can be summer-sown in areas where summers stay cool. Summer heat will cause the plant to quickly bolt, yielding a reward of prized flowers.

For best results, directly sow seeds in late winter or early spring, or in late summer for harvest in fall. Seeds should be sown about 1/4 inch deep and 6 inches apart every 20 to 30 days to ensure a steady supply. Though this shallow-rooted plant will grow in a wide range of soil types, best results are achieved when arugula is grown in cool and consistently moist soil with ample fertility. And if you’re lucky, it will even self-seed if left to flower, providing you with an unexpected harvest bonus for the kitchen.

This surprising vine has many talents

(Akebia quinata)
Zones 4 to 10

Looking for an easy-to-grow, ornamental vine that’s also a bit of a culinary curiosity with an unusual twist? Akebia is a semi-evergreen, fast-growing vine whose flavors often are likened to chocolate and vanilla. Native to Japan, China and Korea, akebia also is known as “the chocolate vine,” probably because of the chocolate-purple flowers it produces in spring, each about 1 inch across and with a taste suggestive of vanilla.

Akebia is actually quite a culinary oddity, producing bizarre-looking, sausage-shaped purplish fruits, up to 4 inches or larger, that ripen in the fall. The bitter skin is sometimes fried (even pork rinds taste good when fried), but the truly edible part is the whitish pulp inside, which is soft, juicy and mildly sweet —and embedded with an abundance of small black seeds. The pulp can be eaten plain, flavored with vanilla, or mixed with yogurt or pudding. It also can be turned into a tropical-tasting clear jelly or flavorful drink.

The dainty leaves have been used as a tea substitute, but it is their ornamental appeal that makes them worthy of a place in any style garden. The leaves are composed of five deep green 2- to 3-inch long leaflets, each shaped like slender rose petals only notched at the tip. The soft young shoots sometimes are used in salads or for pickling.

Belonging to the tropical Lardizabalaceae family, the twining woody vine grows fast in mild regions, from 15 to 30 feet in a season, but slows down where winters are cold. Either way, it needs a support for climbing. You can propagate akebia from softwood cuttings or by layering in early spring, or sow seed that has been stratified for three to four weeks. Fruit production is best achieved by planting more than one vine for cross-pollination.

Akebia is drought-tolerant, can withstand close to full shade and grows well in most soil. But growth is best in full sun to part shade and in moist, well-drained soil. Its sometimes rampant growth is kept in check easily with strong annual winter pruning. You can even cut it to the ground and it will recover. The pliable vines are prized for basket making.

Grow this honey of a plant for tasty teas and winged wildlife

(Agastache foeniculum)
Zones 4 to 9

No doubt about it — anise hyssop is an extremely attractive plant from garden to table. Its membership in the mint family is evident in its square-shaped stems, which are lined with opposing, toothed leaves that have a distinct licorice scent. Growing to a height of 3 to 4 feet, the attractive, terminal spikes bearing edible lavender-blue flowers appear from summer to fall.

The plant itself is a standout as an appealing perennial in flower beds and borders as well as in herb gardens and kitchen gardens, especially when in flower. Even the bees, butterflies and hummingbirds agree, as they all are drawn to its nectar-rich blooms. The flower spikes also add a colorful dimension to summer bouquets, and can be dried for winter arrangements.

The leaves possess mild expectorant and antiviral properties and have been used to aid digestion and treat headaches and mucus congestion. Both leaves and roots were popular with Native Americans, who brewed medicinal tea to treat fevers and respiratory disorders. Today the leaves are cultivated for aromatherapy, potpourri and other scented products, and are used in kitchens as a culinary seasoning. Even better, they make a great-tasting tea.

Anise hyssop is easily propagated by seed, cuttings or root divisions. Sow seeds directly in the fall or early spring (10 to 14 days to germination), or place starter plants about 15 to 18 inches apart after spring frosts have passed. The plant grows readily in most garden soils but performs best in fertile, well-drained soil in full sun, though it will tolerate some shade. Keep plants looking attractive by dividing older plantings every three to five years. Because anise hyssop often self-seeds, new plantings can be established by allowing flowers to mature and produce seed.