Four Seasons of Flavor

Explore the bold flavors of arugula, cress, and nasturtium.

| April/May 2002

The spicy, peppery, flavors of arugula, nasturtium, and cress have been rediscovered in recent years. Now they’re featured in popular mesclun salads at pricey restaurants all over the United States. The great news for gourmet gardeners is that these bold flavors can be harvested practically year-round in many parts of the United States. These herbs will add an unexpected zing to a wide variety of foods, and are high in many important nutrients including vitamin C and calcium.

Cold-hardy arugula

Traditional Italian arugula (Eruca vesicaria) stormed the American culinary scene a decade ago, weaving its continental flair into salads and pastas across the country. A relative of mustard, arugula (also called rocket or roquette) has toothed, elongated, dark-green leaves that are generally eaten raw and impart what some describe as a nutty but sharp flavor. When cooked into soups, stews, and other foods, the taste is more reminiscent of other cruciferous vegetables. Arugula has become one of the most popular additions to both pre-mixed greens, available in grocery stores and farmer’s markets, and in packets of seed mixes.

Small bundles of the herb alone are sometimes commercially available, but arugula is one of the easiest plants to grow. It provides a bountiful crop in just a few weeks. This cold-hardy annual can be planted in early spring in average soil with average moisture. Leaves can be harvested at any time. Two-inch shoots are as delicious as 6- to 8-inch leaves. Some gardeners plant successive two-week crops from spring through fall, but arugula does best when the weather is cool, turning stronger in flavor and having a tendency to bolt in hot weather. Early spring and late-summer plantings are best, and harvesting larger leaves from the outside of the plant and pinching off the flower stalks in cut-and-come-again fashion will extend the harvest for many weeks. The small purple-striped, cream-colored blossoms are also edible but tend to get hidden in most foods. Because the prolific and delicious greens provide more salad fixings, pinching off the flower buds to encourage more leaves is preferable for culinary purposes.

Arugula self-sows well in Zone 5, returning reliably in early spring, and it is a successful candidate for fall planting. It also makes a great container plant, easy to grow and ferry in and out to extend the harvest.

Warm-weather nasturtium

As arugula’s popularity grew, so did the panache of other pungent greens. The common garden nasturtium (Tropaeolum majus or T. minus), also known as Indian cress, has only recently made its way onto modern dinner tables, but its hot, radish-like flavor was a much-favored accompaniment of bygone eras. Our ancestors commonly consumed both the leaves and flowers tossed in salads, stuffed with small fish, or infused in a beautiful, peach-hued vinegar. Recipes for pickling the buds as a substitute for capers date back to the sixteenth century. The Shakers considered nasturtiums to be a staple vegetable and planted the vines in rows where they were supported with stakes, which was believed to produce a more bountiful crop.

As commercially grown produce became more readily available, the utility of the nasturtium was forgotten, but a savvy group of produce growers have renewed interest in the prolific blooms as an edible commodity. Nasturtiums are currently available seasonally in major markets.

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