At times I’m very surprised by what grows well in my high desert garden. I wouldn’t have guessed that arugula would not only grow well but would naturalize and happily spread itself about. Arugula is my favorite salad green, and I’ve learned to love it for cooking too. Something about its tender nutty sharpness is like watercress gone to heaven. It likes cold weather, and manages with surprisingly little water.
First, get your seed. I don’t recommend the wild-type often sold as “sylvetta” because the leaves are small leading to low yield, and in dry conditions it can get too sharp to be pleasant. Try to get the type designated as ‘cultivated” or the named variety Apollo, although the latter lacks the frilly leaves that make such a nice show on the salad plate. In winter or very early spring, scatter the seed in drifts on prepared ground and rake them in lightly, or scatter them in prepared containers and scratch the seed in a little with your fingers. Water occasionally and keep an eye out. Early in the spring, you’ll notice the little plants struggling up bravely. Give them a little water when the soil is dry, and thin them out to stand about 4-6″ apart. Throw the washed thinnings in your salads, of course. When the plants are about 6″ tall, harvest them heavily for salads, but don’t cut the crown or pull the roots up. Use dressings containing nut oils and good olive oil. Never dress the arugula more than a couple of minutes before eating, because it wilts easily. Eventually the plants will start to bolt to seed. Do nothing to stop them. The next phase of the arugula season is starting.
The maturing plant will now stand about 2 feet high, with small clusters of buds. It’s perfect for cooked greens now. Leave one or two plants to bloom and make seed, and cut the rest down to about 3″ high, and bring the cuttings into the kitchen. Pull off and save all leaves, and break the bud sections off wherever the stem will snap without resistance. These are your cooking greens. Wash them carefully. If you want to use the large stems that are left over, cut them in cross sections no more than 1/4 inch long, because they contain strong stringy fibers. I compost them instead of eating them. blanch the washed greens in a large quantity of rapidly boiling water for 1 minute, no more. Drain and proceed as desired toward dinner. They have a flavor a little like broccoli rabe, and I love to eat them with pasta. See recipe below, and for other recipes see my website, www.localfoodalbuquerque.com, go to the “recipes” page, and click on “greens.”
Now, what about the plants you left alone? They will develop into great wispy clouds of small white flowers, a little like annual baby’s breath. Bees adore them. Then they’ll set hundreds of tiny seed pods. When these dry out, let some spill around the mother plant (which can now be pulled up, and should be, because it looks pretty scruffy by now) and toss the rest around wherever you want more arugula. Usually these seeds will be dry and ready for seeding in late summer, will sprout by September, and will be in the salad stage by late October. Leave them over the winter, and the cycle continues.
Pasta with cooked arugula: For two hungry people, or four if using as a first course, Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Meanwhile, chop up a slice of good pancetta about 1/4 inch thick into 1/4 inch cubes (or chop up two slices best bacon, if you don’t have pancetta, but the pancetta is better here.) Render the little cubes in a skillet over medium heat until the fat is released. Don’t drain off a single drop of it. Toss in two cloves of garlic, chopped, and stir briefly. Add half a teaspoon or so of red pepper flakes, stir in, and immediately pour in half a cup of good dry white wine. Boil vigorously for a minute, add salt to taste, and take off the heat.
Meanwhile, your big pot should have come to a boil. You did salt it, didn’t you? Few foods are worse than bland pasta. Throw in half a pound of good pasta. Whole wheat pasta is good here if you like it, but get a very good brand or it can be gluey and awful. When the pasta is about 2 minutes short of done, ie there is a fair amount of white core remaining when you cut or bite a piece, throw in the arugula greens, stir them in, and continue boiling until the pasta is done to your liking. Drain the pasta and arugula together, toss them with the pancetta mixture, and toss in a generous cup of the best Parmesan you can get, grated. Plate the pasta, grind a little pepper over the whole, shave a few artistic slivers of Parmesan on top, and bear to the table.
A vegetarian version can be made by starting with 1/4 cup of pastured butter in the hot small skillet, stirring in a teaspoon of chopped fresh rosemary and two teaspoons of fresh thyme leaves with the garlic, and proceeding as above.
By the way, the best pancetta that I’ve ever tasted in this country is available from www.laquercia.us. The pigs are humanely raised outdoors, the meat is cured by the Italian method without any strange chemicals, and the seasoning never overpowers the pork. While you’re at it, try their other products too. I’ve had most of them, and found them very delicious.