Add a New Dimension of Flavor to Foods

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ARUGULA
(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
(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

ANISE HYSSOP
(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.

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