Eat This Now!
Arugula…A Most Tender Green
For most of us, spring brings thoughts of crocuses popping their pretty little heads through frozen soil…or tulips and daffodils waving lazily in the delicate breeze…or the first warm sunny days teasing us into summer. For me, spring brings back childhood memories of arugula…yes, you heard me, arugula.
I grew up in a large, wildly passionate Italian family who loved to cook and eat and garden. Every spring, while my grandfather turned the soil for his tiny city garden, my mother and grandmother would pile all us kids into the car and drive out to the countryside to pick wild arugula for the family. I think back to those days now and wish I had them back. As a kid, you can imagine my dismay at digging and pulling arugula, whining about being ‘so poor we had to eat weeds.’ My grandmother coaxed my reluctant hands…teaching me to choose only the plants that had not yet bloomed, as they would be too bitter and coarse for salads.
I still live in the city and drive to the countryside to various farms and stands for fresh foods, with the days of picking wild arugula a memory that makes me smile at the wisdom of my ancestors and how they cooked and ate with the seasons.
Arugula is an herbaceous annual plant native to Europe and western Asia. Known in many European countries as ‘rocket,’ arugula as enjoyed as far back as ancient Rome, where it was prized as a diuretic and digestive aid, with its bitter flavor said to support the health of the liver. At its peak in the spring, arugula has the perfect light, fresh energy to refresh our winter weary bodies.
Today, arugula is enjoyed mostly in the Mediterranean and in Egypt, where its delicate bitter flavor is used to enhance the sweeter flavors served with it. Eaten raw or cooked, arugula should be carefully combined with other ingredients, as its sharp taste can easily overwhelm a dish. In salads, for instance, combine arugula with some sweeter greens and a richly flavored dressing to create the perfect combination of tastes. It is commonly used in potato salads, sandwiches and in pasta dishes. Arugula seeds are made into a fiery mustard in Italy and the Middle East.
When buying arugula, look for tender, fresh-looking leaves with a delicate green color and deeply indented veins. Highly perishable, arugula is best eaten quickly after purchase. Wash arugula just before use, as water speeds up its deterioration in the refrigerator, where it can be stored with the roots wrapped in damp paper towels in perforated plastic bags or standing up in a glass of water, with a plastic bag draped loosely around the leaves.
No matter how you store it, don’t let spring pass without adding this delicate bitter green to your repertoire…you know the old saying…life ain’t as sweet without the bitter.
Arugula Salad with Scallion Vinaigrette and Red Grapes
A brilliant late spring salad, filled with the abundance of the season. Bitter arugula and fresh tomatoes join forces to keep our energy light and aid the body in releasing internal heat, so that we can stay cool as the cucumbers in this salad.
Makes 4-5 servings
1 bunch arugula, rinsed well, tips trimmed
1 cucumber, peeled, diced
2 ripe tomatoes, diced (do not peel or seed)
4-5 red radishes, diced
2-3 fresh scallions, thinly sliced on the diagonal
2-3 cups organic red grapes
½ cup pine nuts
2-3 fresh scallions, diced
1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
3 tablespoons red wine vinegar
2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
Clean arugula and arrange it on a platter. Chill completely.
Combine the balance of the vegetables and red grapes in a mixing bowl. Set aside while making the dressing.
Heat a dry skillet over low heat. Stir in pine nuts and lightly toast until fragrant, about 3 minutes. Transfer to a suribachi (grinding bowl) and grind until half broken. Add scallions and grind to a paste. Transfer to a small mixing bowl and add oil, vinegars and a light seasoning of salt. Whisk until well blended. Adjust seasoning to your taste. Fold dressing into the vegetables and toss gently until well-coated.
To serve, mound the vegetables onto the bed of chilled arugula.