Real Food Encyclopedia | Arugula
In just one generation, arugula has gone from obscurity to celebrity, eclipsing lettuce and spinach as the salad green of choice. Its ubiquity in American restaurants is new, but arugula has been prized in Mediterranean cuisines for thousands of years. While it’s available year-round in supermarkets today, the punchy flavor and delicate texture of arugula is best when grown locally and eaten fresh and in season.
Fun Facts about Arugula:
- In Northern India and neighboring Afghanistan and Pakistan, mature arugula seeds are pressed to make taramira oil (aka jamba oil) that is used in the kitchen for pickling and in the bath for dry skin and scalp. The leaves are used as animal feed.
- In 2007, arugula was at the center of political controversy when Senator Barack Obama made a remark on a presidential campaign stop in Iowa about the price of arugula in Whole Foods Market that prompted the opposition to cast him as an out-of-touch “cultural elitist.”
What to Look for When Buying Arugula
Arugula is a peppery, nutty salad green with a sharp and bitter bite, like watercress. Be on the lookout for firm leaves without any yellow or signs of mushiness. Mass-produced “baby” arugula in pre-washed sacks tends to be very mild. “Wild arugula” is another variety with lacier leaves and a more assertive flavor.
Sustainability of Arugula
Pesticides and Arugula
Like many salad greens, arugula can carry a surprisingly large environmental footprint. Much of the arugula grown in the US comes from California and Arizona, where producers rely heavily on irrigation and chemical inputs. While buying organic arugula alleviates concerns about chemical usage, even organic greens grown on a wide scale come with an environmental cost; growers extensively plow and reshape the soil, which can lead to soil loss and water quality concerns. Like lettuces and spinach, arugula produced in California and Arizona is potentially subject to food safety risks due to the proximity of large livestock feeding operations. For these reasons, arugula should always be carefully washed in water before consumption. Because it’s a relatively delicate green, arugula is often sold in clamshell containers, which carry high carbon footprints, so buy loose or bagged leaves whenever possible.
Given the high environmental costs of producing and shipping arugula, buying it locally and in season whenever possible is a good choice.
Although available year-round in supermarkets, arugula is traditionally a cool weather/moderate temperature crop that is usually available in the spring, early summer and early fall. Arugula develops a bitter taste and tough texture in heat, so it is a summer crop only in cool areas.
Like most tender greens, arugula is highly perishable and needs to be used within a few days of purchase. Sealed plastic bags create a moist environment that makes the greens mushy, so keep them in a damp paper towel until ready to eat.
Cooking with Arugula
- Arugula is notoriously sandy. Remove the root ends and place leaves in a large bowl. Fill halfway with cold water. Lift arugula out of the bowl and discard sandy water. Repeat, until water is free of sand, three to four times.
- If using arugula raw, make sure leaves are thoroughly dry, because wet arugula doesn’t take to vinaigrette very well and quickly clumps up. The best way to do this is with a salad spinner.
The things to do with raw arugula are endless: use it on a sandwich, in an omelet, on top of a just-out-of-the-oven pizza, as a bed for grilled fish or meats, mixed into pasta, as a garnish for soup. In salads, it plays nicely with both fatty and acidic ingredients. Arugula pairs well with seasonal fruit: pomegranate seeds, blood oranges or mandarins in the winter; strawberries and red onions in the spring; tomatoes and garlic at the autumn harvest. Dairy lovers, think goat cheese, thin shards of Parmigiano-Reggiano or your favorite blue cheese. You can also roughly chop it (either raw or blanched) into pesto or mixed with ricotta cheese for some lovely ravioli or lasagna filling.
While raw arugula is too fragile to preserve on its own, you can use it to make pesto, salsa verde or in an arugula herb butter, which can then be frozen and stored for several months. For easy use, freeze your butter or pesto in ice cube trays for single-use portions.
Arugula is not as high in vitamins and minerals as many other salad greens, but it offers other nutritional benefits. Arugula and other cruciferous vegetables like broccoli are high in cancer-suppressing and antioxidant compounds like glucosinolates and kaempferol.