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Arugula: The Zesty Rocket

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Arugula in gardenLate summer is the time to find fresh arugula at the farm market. You might find it under a few of its other names: garden rocket, rocket salad, rucchetta, rughetta, rucola (the Italian name), and roquette (the French name).

The taste of arugula has been described as tangy, peppery, nutty and mustard sharp. You get the picture: arugula is the “mild” transformer.

In Italian salads, arugula is often contrasted against red chicory and paler lettuces. In the mesclun salads originating in Provence, arugula is one of the zestier greens mixed with baby lettuces and herbs. In California, baby arugula is often mixed with other baby greens.

Young leaves are mild and can be eaten raw particularly if grown in a greenhouse or heavily irrigated. The longer arugula matures and soaks up the summer sun, the more tangy it becomes. Late-season arugula can rival the hotttest mutard. In fact, late summer arugula in Britain got the name “rocket salad” because the taste was nothing less than explosive.

For a taste of California cuisine: combine arugula, radicchio, diced red onion, chopped toasted walnuts, goat cheese and a red wine vinaigrette.

Arugula’s flavor affinities include beets, goat cheese, mozzarella, nuts, olives, pancetta, pasta, roasted peppers, tomatoes and vinaigrette. How is it that this little green can balance tastes that vary from sweet, to sharp, to salty, to rich, to acid, to bland. Perhaps it’s in the time of harvest.

Choose. When choosing arugula, look for bright emerald green leaves about 5-7.5 cm (2-3 inches) long. Don’t choose leaves that are yellowed, limp, withered or slimy.

Store. Arugula can be loosely wrapped in a wet paper towel and placed in a plastic bag in the refrigerator for up to 3 days.

Grow. The deep green arugula leaf is slender, elongated and multi-lobed and can ressemble an oak or dandelion leaf at varying stages of maturity. Arugula seed can be sown from spring to summer and is ready for harvest in four to five weeks. It grows just about anywhere but prefers moist, fertile soil. Since it grows well under cover, a harvest need never be far off.

Written by Stephen Albert

Stephen Albert is a horticulturist, master gardener, and certified nurseryman who has taught at the University of California for more than 25 years. He holds graduate degrees from the University of California and the University of Iowa. His books include Vegetable Garden Grower’s Guide, Vegetable Garden Almanac & Planner, Tomato Grower’s Answer Book, and Kitchen Garden Grower’s Guide. His Vegetable Garden Grower’s Masterclass is available online. Harvesttotable.com has more than 10 million visitors each year.

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