Arugula: Still a Favorite Weed


The post below was one of my very first blog posts back in 2008, and it remains true that arugula is one of my favorite early spring greens and grows everywhere that it is allowed to seed, even in my high-desert climate. I still let it seed itself around in the way described below, but I also reserve a few square feet of bed space to grow it’s specifically for salads. Enrich the soil in the fall, and in late fall or early spring scatter arugula seed thickly around, scratch it into the soil surface or cover it with some compost, and water the area about once a week if you live in a climate as dry as mine. Bymid-spring it will be 4-5 inches high. To gather, hold clumps of leaves with one hand and use scissors to cut them off at the bottom of the leaf, leaving the stems behind. They will still be young and tender and will be quite clean because the closely spaced plants hold each other up off the dirt, so after a rinse and drying in a salad spinner or towel, they will be ready to eat.

In my view it isn’t worthwhile to try to get a second crop, because they are so closely spaced that they are eager to shoot to seed. I just dig up the area and plant something else. They are delicious with a good simple vinaigrette made with some garlic or green garlic and your best red wine vinegar and olive oil. Don’t forget the salt. Do  note that once the dressing is put on it arugula wilts very quickly, so don’t dress it until the last minute before serving. If you are making a mixed salad and want to dress it ahead of time, combine the other greens, dress the salad, and toss in the arugula just before serving.

Once you have it washed and handy in the refrigerator you will find other uses for it, such as scattering around the plate to serve chicken or fish or nearly anything else on, or stuffing into pita with hummus and some tahini dressing. It is one of the joys of spring, so use it instead of those commercial salad mixes.

Arugula, my favorite weed

Posted December 12, 2008 by wooddogs3 in cookingedible landscapingfront yard gardeninggreensherbspreservingrecipesaladsurban homesteadingvegetable gardening. Tagged: arugulacooking greensleafy greenslocal foodpancettapastasaladssustainablevegetable gardening1 Comment

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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, or go to the categories in the sidebar, 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 bit 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 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.

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