Savannah, Ga; September 2, 2016. The wind and rain are raging outside, mostly in gusts, as Tropical Storm Hermine passes through the area. I’m staying at home, wishing I had picked up some salad greens yesterday on my way home from Charleston. The salad rocket (Eruca sativa) has long since burned up in the garden, but the wild arugula, a species of the Diplotaxis genus, has naturalized and continues to produce, even though I have not let it go to seed (though I will this fall). I’m not sure if it is the muralis or the erucoides species because now there are many cultivars of both and the seed packages simply said rucola selvatica – wild arugula. Flower color is the most obvious way to identify the plants, but I have not let it flower and now, I read, there are cultivars of each with both yellow and white flowers. As I have written before, the cruciferous vegetables (members of the Brassicaceae family) are notoriously difficult to classify. And, as William Woys Weaver pointed out in Heirloom Vegetable Gardening (1997), rocket varieties “cross easily and therefore should not be raised at the same time unless carefully caged. Otherwise, they will all blend together and degenerate into a coarse form similar to the rockets depicted in paintings from the sixteenth century.” Arugula has been cultivated in southern Italy since Roman days.
In 1995 on a tour of Puglia with the International Olive Oil Council and Oldways Preservation Trust, I found seeds of arugula, which grows wild throughout the Mediterranean, and smuggled them back to Charleston. Skip and Pete Madsen on Johns Island grew them for me and we introduced them to Charleston kitchen gardens. The wild variety is much more flavorful than Eruca, the “salad rocket.” It some parts of the Mediterranean it is known as “false arugula” or “wall rocket.” I have seen it growing wild all over the Mediterranean basin, from Morocco to France, but it has naturalized beyond its natural range, well into northern Europe and the British Isles. Salad rocket has naturalized throughout North America. It was widely popular in American gardens until the Civil War — but it was used as often for medicinal purposes as for culinary ones.
It adds piquancy to salads and is central to both French “mesclun” and Roman “misticanza” — both dialect words for “mixture.” In the old Testaccio market in Rome, I saw it labelled “rughetta selvatica.” Its peppery flavor is distinctive and is often featured on its own. A typical pasta dish calls for the arugula to be cooked with the noodles; it is simply dressed with fiery oil, seasoned with garlic and hot peppers, or with a quick stovetop tomato sauce, garnished with pecorino cheese.
You can use the wild arugula varieties in lieu of salad rocket, but it is much more potent. California gardening and kitchen wiz Sylvia Thompson offers a recipe for an arugula salad sandwich that includes cherry tomatoes, cucumbers, onions, and feta — like a Bulgarian shopska or “Greek” salad — dressed and stuffed into a hollowed out Greek sesame seed bread ring, the top replaced and held together with skewers, then sliced into big wedges while picnicking. She notes, “Ounce for ounce, the raw leaves of arugula hold 2-1/2 times the calcium of nonfat milk, twice the beta-carotene of cantaloupe, and a little less than twice the Vitamin C of oranges.”
I recently paired it with Ptitim, which is marketed in the US as either Pearl, Toasted, or Israeli couscous. I stir-fried a half pound of the pasta in a couple of tablespoons of olive oil, stirring constantly. After a few minutes, I added some cut up Vidalia onion and continued to stir-fry until the pasta was golden brown. I then added 1-3/4 cups of boiling chicken stock and a pinch of salt, turned down the heat, covered it, and let it cook at a very low simmer for about 6 minutes. I opened the lid midway and stirred the couscous well, and recovered the pot. After a total of 6 minutes, I removed the pot from the heat and added a large handful of arugula — about 1 ounce or a cup, well packed — a tiny bit more of oil and a few hot pepper flakes, and stirred it well until the arugula was almost all wilted. I then covered the pot again and let it steam for another 6 minutes. The next time I make it, I will use shrimp stock and stir a few shrimp in with the arugula as well. But this version was delicious.
My dear friend Elizabeth Schneider is the author of two outstanding books on fruits and vegetables. She offers delightful recipes for the vegetable that is “more than a leafy green, less than a strong herb.” She advises, “Although cooked arugula loses some bite, it has much flavor. Toss in hot oil and garlic, then with pasta or potatoes. Add to stir-fries at the last minute. Purée in soups and sauces.”
I highly recommend that you grow your own. I have grown it successfully on balconies in both Bulgaria and subtropical Sichuan as well as in Washington, DC; Charleston, and Savannah. Get the wild kind. Because it’s stronger in flavor, it perks up otherwise dull salads and doesn’t lose as much flavor when it’s cooked.