Arugula: Rocketing from Cutting Edge to Culinary Basic

Friends, let me tell you about arugula. Now, before you raise an eyebrow and flip to the cover to check if you’re reading a way-back issue, give me a moment. I’m not suggesting that I introduce you to the existence of arugula. No. I’m not suggesting that you’ve been oblivious to the existence of arugula. It’s not the ’80s, and if you’re wearing a sweatshirt emblazoned with a unicorn, it’s probably meant to be ironic.

Pretty much unknown outside of Europe until a few decades ago, arugula became all the rage here at about the same time that the raspberry-white chocolate combo reigned in the dessert world. Introduced to North Americans as a common component of mesclun, arugula was one of the leaders of the salad revolution that usurped iceberg from its long-held position of dominance.

Since then, arugula has remained chief contender for top spot in the world of salad greens. You’ve probably had it sprinkled on top of pizza; you’ve absolutely had it in a salad.

Although arugula is no longer likely to astonish dinner guests, it deserves a major place in your spring garden. For me, arugula is one of those fail-safe crops: one that provides reassurance and bolsters confidence whether I’m unsure about the quality of my soil or the greenness of my thumbs.

Arugula thrives in Vancouver’s typically mild, rainy springs. A cool-season edible, it’s best sown in early through late spring, and again at the end of summer for a fall harvest. It grows well in part shade or full sun, in rich or in lacking soil, in the ground or in containers.

Arugula is equally adaptable in the kitchen. Begin your harvest by thinning overcrowded seedlings. The young, tender leaves taste mild and slightly peppery: perfect for eating fresh from the garden with shaved Parmesan and a light dressing of olive oil, lemon, salt, and cracked pepper. As your plants mature, progress to snipping off a leaf or two from each one—a technique, known as cut-and-come- again, that encourages plants to keep developing new leaves. At this stage, arugula is wonderfully versatile; eat it raw, use it to top hot-from-the-oven bruschetta or pizza, stir it into hot pasta or soup, stuff it into omelettes, ravioli, or lasagna. As summer approaches, arugula begins to set seed, or “bolt.” At this point, its flavour is no longer for the faint of heart: spicy, sharp, and often bitter, it’s most enjoyable when lightly cooked.

It is arugula’s bite, however, that suggests the plant is more herb than vegetable. While we primarily think of arugula as a leafy green, it has for centuries been valued for its purported healing properties. In Ischia, an island off the coast of Naples, arugula is the main component (after alcohol) of Rucolino, a digestive liqueur.

Easy to grow, easy to eat (though, I suspect, not so easy to drink), I love this stuff. Arugula might be more kitchen staple than cutting edge, but this is one trend I’m happy to see last.


A GARDEN CHECKLIST FOR SPRING

• Direct-sow your cool-season crops: arugula and other brassicas (broccoli, cabbage, kale, mizuna, mustard greens), beets, carrots, lettuce, parsnips, peas, and radishes. Aim for a mix of old favourites and new-to-you varieties.

• Start warm-season edibles such as tomatoes and peppers indoors on your sunniest window ledge, or troll the farmers’ market for sturdy-looking transplants.

• Research new uses for old favourites. Make your own herbal bitters, flavoured butters, or savoury jams.

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Philip Solman
Andrea Bellamy is the gardener behind HeavyPetal.ca and the author of Sugar Snaps and Strawberries: Simple Solutions for Creating Your Own Small-Space Edible Garden.
http://HeavyPetal.ca
Spring
04/03/2014

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