By JOYCE COMINGORE
Special to The Breeze
Arugula to the left of me - I wasn't surprised when Martha Stewart touted an arugula pesto on her wild salmon steaks, such haute cuisine with the top of the foraging greens.
Then, arugula to the right of me - Rachael Ray, the queen of the 30 Minute Meals, threw in some arugula with her meals.
But now, NOW, I'm flat in the middle of the arugula craze when I am hit right where I live my June/July AARP magazine throws a pork chop, apple and arugula recipe at me. Even my middle daughter serves me arugula in her light greens and vinaigrette mix salad. She said they had tried arugula alone, but it was too strong and bitter, so now she mixes it with baby spinach for that tangy salad side dish.
It's not like I haven't had that peppery taste served to me before. My mother enhanced my life by bringing me along as we stalked the fresh streams of water looking for and gathering watercress for her watercress and cucumber sandwiches. She and her mother (my grandmother) always had a patch of nasturtiums growing, from which I would find the cut up leaves and blossoms in my salads.
I have seen recipes using it fresh in salads and on sandwiches, sauted, in stir fry, soups, omelets, stews and even thrown on top of pizzas. I read where they called it a nutrition rock star. Very low in calories, it is high in vitamins A, C and K, folic acid and potassium, besides being a good source of zinc, calcium and iron (Popeye anyone?) It has antioxidant power as well as enzymes needed for detoxifying the body naturally. There are 2 calories in a half a cup of arugula.
In Roman times it was grown for its leaves and seeds. The seeds were put into flavoring oils. Dating back to the first century A.D., the seeds were used in concoctions for an aphrodisiac (just don't burst out singing "I'm sexy and I know it!) On the island of Ischia in the Gulf of Naples, a digestive alcohol called rucolino is made and enjoyed in small quantities after a meal. In Egypt, arugula is served along with cooked and mashed fava beans with olive oil, parsley, onions, garlic and lemon juice for breakfast and as accompanying their seafood. In West Asia and Northern India, its seeds are pressed to make taramira oil used in pickling and used as a salad or cooking oil.
Research tells me that arugula has pretty much been our national salad green since the '90s. France and Italy have enjoyed it for ages, but Britain and the U.S. have just caught up with them. Eruca sativa, native to the Mediter-ranean and Asia, belongs to the brassicaceae family like mustard greens, cauliflower, kale and also related to the radish and watercress. It has other names like rugola, rucola, roquette, garden or Mediterranean or salad or radish Roman rocket, and Italian cress.
Like other leaf crops, it is a crop for cooler weather. It is easy to grow from seeds. Do not soak the seeds before planting because they turn into a muscilaginous mess. Plant seeds in a well drained, well fertilized soil when daytime temperatures are above 40 degrees. They need at least three hours of full sun and filtered light. Cover lightly with an eighth inch of soil. Seeds will sprout in 3 to 10 days even in cool soil of 40 to 55 degrees. Keep them moist and roquette is ready to harvest in four weeks. It gets its name "Rocket" for its speedy growth under these conditions. Arugula sprouts are a great eating. This is a speedy growing, gratifying plant.
After they have set several sets of leaves, your can clip the larger leaves, leaving inner leaves to keep growing and re-harvesting until the leaves taste too strong. They grow 6 to 12 inches tall in their harvest stage. Arugula stretches skyward in hot weather, sending up a bloom stalk that can reach 3 feet tall with little white flowers blooming on top. Leaf production stops. They reseed and spread. An annual that is quick growing.
Arugula flowers are very edible and pretty in a salad. Flowering signals the end of the season. Let them go to seed and start next season's crop.
Arugula is not fussy, but drought and heat causes the leaves to be smaller and more peppery. Rinse well before eating. Get rid of the gritty soil. Harvested leaves need to be used within two days. Dry them and wrap them tightly in a plastic bag. Rinse well before eating.
CAVEAT! Some people develop an allergy to eating arugula. An allergy, and not food intolerance, is serious. It is safe the first time you eat it, but the body will send up antibodies in allergic people, affecting the lips, tongue and throat in subsequent digesting. I found that other lettuces can cause allergies, too. Anytime you have a swelling in your throat that might impede your breathing, take an antihistamine and go to the hospital. This is rare.
David Kamp wrote and published a book in 2006 that became a symbol for the entire foodie movement, "THE UNITED STATES OF ARUGULA." It was about how we have become a society where balsamic vinegar, pasta, free-range chicken, extra virgin olive oil, as well as arugula are now mainstream terms. Then in 2008, arugula became a symbol involved in political controversy when President Barack Obama moaned about the high price of arugula. He was called an elitist.
Enjoy a gourmet salad and thank a tree for our fresh air.
Joyce Comingore is a master gardener and a member of the American Hibiscus Society and the Garden Club of Cape Coral.