Real Food Encyclopedia | Arugula
In just one generation, the bitter leafy green that is arugula has gone from obscurity to celebrity — and ultimately, ubiquity — replacing iceberg as the salad-y default. While the pale green wedges doused in creamy bottled dressing reined supreme in the steakhouse craze of the 80s, arugula was minding its own business in immigrant backyard gardens — a humble and ancient weed-like herb from the Mediterranean basin, its apparent birthplace. But these days, arugula is part of the common culinary vernacular, available everywhere imaginable, including under the Golden Arches. Perhaps we’ve reached the Age of Arugula?
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 lettuce 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.
Sustainability of Arugula
Pesticides and Arugula
Although not listed as a mass-scale crop by the USDA, arugula is big agricultural business, particularly in the organic sector. Because of its popularity, arugula is sold in pre-washed bags or clamshell containers by supermarkets and big box retailers. Due to the massive scale of the production, we urge washing the greens anyway. Nationwide recalls of lettuces, including organic baby spinach and romaine, have happened in the last few years, and the same could happen to arugula.
Given the choice, it’s preferred to find arugula from as local a source as possible, often easy because it has become a farmers’ market staple. Better still, arugula is ridiculously easy to grow, even in containers. Depending on your growing zone, you could have an arugula harvest in less than two months.
Although available year round in supermarkets, arugula is traditionally a cool weather/moderate temperature crop, so think spring or early fall. (Plant those seeds now for spring harvest!) Arugula doesn’t mind drought, but it does not tolerate heat. Once temperatures climb, the leaves will bolt and get bitter and stems will grow thick and caterpillar-like.
Like most tender greens, arugula is highly perishable and needs to be used within a few days of purchase. (Of course, if you grow your own, you can harvest as you need!) Keep in a damp towel until ready to eat. Plastic bags tend to create a moist environment, inviting the mush.
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 any number of ingredients, both fatty and acidic. 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. Pro tip: freeze in ice cube trays for single-use portions.
Despite what all those internet searches tell you, arugula is not rich in Vitamin C or calcium, nor does it come close to the nutrient density of its salad rival, spinach. Where arugula excels nutritionally is in the antioxidant department. Arugula is rich in Vitamin A in the form of beta-carotene, but it’s also a mother lode of a disease-fighting flavonoid called kaempferol. According this 2004 study, arugula’s protective powers are off the charts. It has been studied in Saudi Arabia for its ability to treat gastric ulcers.