In the Garden:
Upper South
October, 2004
Regional Report

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Easily grown young arugula leaves -- with their pungent, peppery taste -- will make salads a delight this fall and winter.

Rugged Arugula

As summer fades into a distant memory, and even fall speeds quickly by, gardeners who grow their own vegetables can relish the fact that the ground can still yield sumptuous delicacies. With only minimal protection from either a purchased or homemade cold frame (the quickest is simply surrounding an area with straw bales and laying an old window on top), we can have all manner of salad greens as well as the more robust kales and collards for cooking well into winter.

From among the dozens of choices for a fall and winter vegetable garden, one little plant stands out for its quickness and ease of growth, as well as its luscious piquancy: arugula (pronounced ah-ROO-guh-lah).

Ways of the World
A little plant with many aliases, arugula is a peppery salad green that has been utilized for centuries in Europe but has been little known in the States until the last couple of decades. Native to the Mediterranean and western Asia and scientifically known as Eruca sativa, arugula is a member of the Cruciferae (mustard) family. In Italian, it is "ruca" or "rucula," and it's sometimes referred to as Italian cress. One of the most familiar names is rocket, which is actually pronounced like its French name, "roquette."

The growth habit could be likened to a true rocket, however, in that it shoots up quickly, often sprouting from seed in only a day or two. It grows rapidly to its harvest height of 2 to 4 inches, with a sweet yet spicy flavor, then, in seemingly no time, it becomes unbearably hot in flavor. It pays to sample the leaves before adding them to a salad. Before that fiery point has been reached, the flavor has been likened to a combination of horseradish and hazelnuts, both spicy and nutty. For those interested in nutrition as well as flavor, arugula is rich in vitamin C and minerals.

In the Garden
Arugula is a cool-weather plant, thriving in early spring and late fall and able to survive frosts. It grows in almost any deeply spaded, well-drained soil. Broadcast the seed or sow in rows and cover with 1/4 inch of soil. Thin seedlings to 4 inches or so apart. The key to successfully growing arugula is to keep plantings well watered, because dry soil intensifies the hot aspect of the flavor. In a month or less, when plants are a couple of inches tall, the leaves are ready for harvest. Entire plants can be pulled, or the outer leaves removed for a cut-and-come-again harvest. Eventually, arugula sends up a branching, central flower stalk with little white and purple flowers. Although the leaves will be quite hot at this point, the buds, flowers and seedpods can be used. Left on the plant, the seeds will sometimes self-sow.

In the Kitchen
Arugula is a traditional ingredient in mesclun and adds a delightful bite to mixes of milder lettuces. Purists exalt in it solo, especially with a garlic vinaigrette. It also matches well with strawberries or raspberries and a dressing using hazelnut oil and a berry vinegar. When tomatoes are in season, combine arugula with slices of tomato and mozzarella or shavings of parmesan.


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