Such a delicate, tender green seems an unlikely source of distinct, robust flavor, but arugula delivers an unmistakably potent, peppery bite. Related to watercress and radish, the elongated leaves are also known as rocket, rugula and Italian cress.
Native to the Mediterranean, arugula is a fast grower and easy to cultivate in most any location, though it will become increasingly bitter in very hot temperatures. The ancient Romans enjoyed the leaves in salads (along with mallow, chicory and lavender), and they used the seeds to flavor oils.
Arugula provides hefty nutrition as well as flavor. It’s a very good source of dietary fiber, vitamins A, C and K, folate, calcium, iron, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium and manganese. It’s also a good source of protein, thiamin, riboflavin, vitamin B6, pantothenic acid, zinc and copper.
There are many varieties of arugula now available through CSAs, food co-ops and grocery stores—from small-leaved (like Rustic) to large-leaved (like Apollo), deeply indented (like Sylvetta) to rounded (like Roquette) and mild (like Astro) to spicy hot (like Even’ Star).
Arugula’s spicy, mustardy bite perks up any salad. Scatter an assortment of greens with arugula, and top with a simple vinaigrette, freshly grated Parmesan or sliced fresh mozzarella, and coarsely ground black pepper. Zesty lime is a good match for arugula in Arugula with Tomatoes and Avocados in Lime Vinaigrette. For a rich, sweet dressing with Asian notes, try Curry Lime Dressing with Arugula & Pepper Salad.
If any green prompts thinking outside the salad bowl, it’s arugula. Use it as a fun pizza topping, in Easy Arugula Salad Pizza, or—along with broccoli—in Green Pizza. For something completely unexpected, whip up a Breakfast Egg Margherita Pizza, sprinkled with arugula.
Of course, arugula is also perfect on sandwiches and burgers, like this Gourmet Greek Burger, served with a minty lemon mayo spread.
Try arugula as a substitute for (or partner with) basil in pesto, or sautéed in a bit of olive oil. Its robust flavor is a good match for hearty foods like steak and mushrooms, but it also complements milder fare like pasta, grains and fruit. (It’s especially delicious with melons and pears.) Try it with seafood, too, in a Smoked Salmon and Arugula Salad.
The best arugula is found in spring to early summer, before the heat makes it too bitter. Look for soft (not leathery) leaves with smooth, even green coloring. Avoid dry and yellow leaves.
To store, place arugula leaves in a produce storage bag or open plastic bag in the refrigerator, and try to use them within a couple of days. (Placing a paper towel in with the leaves is often suggested to keep them from becoming wilted or wet.) Rinse leaves in cool water and dry well before serving.