Rocket Science

Arugula is a satisfying beginner vegetable to grow; it sprouts fast, and is ready to eat once it has leafed out. Trim, and let it sprout new leaves for a second crop.

“Anybody gone into Whole Foods lately and see what they charge for arugula?” asked then-Sen. Barack Obama, during an Iowa campaign rally in 2007. There was no Whole Foods in Iowa at the time, and his gaffe, and the inevitable backlash, all became known as “Arugula-gate.”

Thus, the fates of arugula and Obama became inextricably linked. His alleged elitism sealed the spicy green’s fate for at least two election cycles, according to agriculture industry observers. At the time, kale had sales on par with arugula, but went on to dominate the dark leafy greens category – while arugula has languished ever since.

I, too, got off to a rocky start with rocket – aka roquette – as arugula is variously called. Maybe it was too many bowls of salad that were too heavy on the arugula. But the scrappy plant from the mustard family found a home in my heart and belly, as a flavor adjuster, not the entire flavor. It’s the difference between a touch of mustard and a bowl of mustard.

As a leafy condiment, the pungent green has a lot going for it. It stays stiff and crunchy long after harvest, yet remains tender. Arugula has been a staple for centuries across Europe, with deepest recorded roots in ancient Rome, where it gained repute as an aphrodisiac. Virgil wrote that its fiery flare reinvigorated the weary goddess Aphrodite, and the rest was history.

In the field, this lovable plant is all toughness. It can handle the cold. It can grow in the weeds. It thrives on adversity.

I decided to give arugula another chance. And I began to see my sassy new friend everywhere I turned.

At my local deli I noticed a wad of dressed arugula in a sandwich of lox, onions, capers and cream cheese. At a recent Sunday brunch, I found arugula hiding beneath a decadent plate of eggs Benedict. The Italians, of course, have been on it forever. These days they add fresh handfuls to pizza and chop it onto pasta. I don’t know if the Brazilians are on it, but I put a pile of arugula on a bowl of feijoada (black bean stew) and the sharp bite was perfect. It’s almost always tossed in some kind of simple vinaigrette like lemon juice with olive oil.

One of my favorite ways to use arugula is as the final stroke in a pan salad. It’s a continuum of raw and cooked roots, tubers, bulbs and leaves. I like tossing it with scrambled eggs, which gives it a breakfasty feel. Made exciting with the wild flavor of arugula, like a splash of green hot sauce, but with more fiber.

But once you make the easy and healthy arugula mix, you can top just about anything with it for an extra zing of flavor and color.

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