Add a New Dimension of Flavor to Foods


| December/January 2005

  • Rick Wetherbee

  • Rick Wetherbee

  • Rick Wetherbee

(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.

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