Arugula is a simple and fast-growing plant that thrives in the cool. Although technically a green, the spicy flavor is often
used like an herb as a flavoring agent for many dishes. Arugula enjoys full sun but will tolerate some shade. Morning sun is actually best, since the leaves can struggle in the heat of late afternoon, as the summer heat progresses.
For the first greens of the season, start the seeds indoors. They will sprout in just a few days. In the east, arugula is planted outside at the end of April, although the leaves can withstand a light frost. The season can be extended by protecting the plants with a covering. It could be as simple as a plastic milk jug with the bottom cut out — to act as a mini greenhouse.
Another way to protect the plants is by using a translucent spun-bound fabric called a floating row cover. This lightweight material doesn’t need support. The plants themselves hold up the weight of the fabric.
Arugula can also be sowed directly into the garden. Prepare the soil by turning it over and then raking it smooth. The garden bed should be fertile and ready for planting. Rows can be close, about a foot apart, with each seed planted about 6 inches apart. Start harvesting in just a couple weeks by thinning the plants to about a foot apart.
Once arugula starts to fill out, it can be trimmed to just above soil level for the main harvest. More leaves will sprout, and the plants can be cut a couple more times before they are exhausted.
Arugula’s trademark spiciness is best when harvested from young leaves, which become stronger in flavor and rather tough if picking is delayed. When the leaves develop soft fur on the undersides, they’re starting to get a little old, but the flowers are edible and can add an interesting spicy flavor and nice color to salads.
It’s a good idea to treat arugula like lettuce, planting some seeds every few weeks. When temperatures rise, use taller plants such as tomatoes and beans to shade arugula from the late-afternoon sun.
Flea beetles are the only pest I’ve ever known to bother arugula, and they leave little holes in the leaves. (Flea beetles also attack peppers and eggplant.) One of the flea beetle’s favorite foods is radishes, so some gardeners keep sowing radishes all season because the beetles are drawn to the radish leaves and leave the arugula alone. Who cares if the radish leaves have holes? Most of us are after the root, anyway, although the seed pods are delicious.
The best defense against flea beetles is to grow plants that are healthy. Plant them in good soil improved with organic matter, such as well aged animal manure or compost.
Spring crops usually get enough rain, but summer plantings should be sprinkled with 1 inch of water a week when rain cannot do the job.
Serving arugula is as easy as adding some freshly picked leaves to a salad. The greens also go well with chicken, in soups or even on pizza.
Arugula is a good ingredient to experiment with, and as you get a feel for what works and what doesn’t, you can become more daring. Try the leaves as the main ingredient for a pesto or add them to a dish with white beans for a distinctly Italian flavor only arugula can provide. One word of caution: Less is often more with arugula, since the pungent flavor has a tendency to overpower.
Every time my wife and I taste the greens, we are taken back to summer nights we spent together in Rome in the shadow of the Vatican. And that — with or without arugula — is a very good thing.
Whole wheat pasta and arugula
Whole wheat pasta offers more fiber and nutrients than processed white pasta does.
When cooked right and consumed with the right sauce, whole wheat pasta can be as tasty as its processed cousin. I find that angel hair or rotini are good shapes to start with. This recipe was inspired by Donato Coluccio, executive chef at the Steelhead Brasserie and Wine Bar in the Pittsburgh Marriott City Center.
1 pound whole wheat pasta
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
3 cloves garlic, 2 smashed, 1 minced
1 cup chicken stock
1/4 cup whole pitted Kalamata olives
1 large red bell pepper, sliced
1 cup canned diced tomatoes, drained
2 to 3 cups arugula leaves
Fill a Dutch oven with water and add salt to taste. Bring to a boil, add pasta and cook until al dente. While it is cooking, pour olive oil into hot saucepan. Add two smashed cloves garlic and cook for one minute, or until garlic is tan on both sides. Add minced garlic and stir constantly for 30 seconds.
Add stock, olives and bell pepper and cook for 2 or 3 minutes to wilt pepper a bit.
Add tomato, turn off heat and add arugula to taste. It should not be cooked — just warmed. Toss with drained pasta and serve.
Makes 4 servings.
Simple arugula antipasto inspired by Italy
One thing my wife and I learned in Italy was to use the freshest ingredients available.
Go to a specialty store for the meats and cheeses. They cost more, but the quality will make a simple dish like this special. Use the best olive oil you can find.
3 cups arugula leaves
1 12-ounce jar marinated roasted red peppers, drained and sliced
12 ounces Parmigiano-Reggiano, crumbled
1 pound fresh mozzarella, cut in bite-size cubes
6 ounces thinly sliced sweet salami, cut in bite-size pieces
6 ounces thinly sliced prosciutto, torn in bite-size pieces
6 ounces dried hot salami, cut in chunks
2 to 4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 to 3 tablespoons red wine vinegar
Sea salt and pepper
Clean and dry arugula to taste and place on a serving platter. Arrange roasted peppers, Parmesan, mozzarella, sweet salami, prosciutto and hot salami around. Drizzle with olive oil and vinegar to taste and season to taste with salt and pepper. Makes 8 servings as an appetizer, 4 as a light main course.
Doug Oster is co-author of “Grow Organic” (St. Lynn’s Press).