Arugula: Rocket Ship to Flavor

The peppery slap of this early-spring green is the perfect way to wake up the palate after a long winter of grains and braised meat.

I met my friend Adam when I started graduate school, so he’s been giving me grief about arugula for a very long time. At first it was unfamiliarity with a twinge of class conflict: Adam is from Newark (which he pronounces, to this day, as a single syllable) and had never seen arugula before he met me, and in the early 1990s the green did have a whiff of yuppie pretension about it. But I knew I’d won him over when I caught him coming in the back door one morning with some leaves he’d harvested from the patch I had in the garden. “There’s no lettuce to put on my sandwich, man, that’s the only reason I’m eating this stuff.” I nodded in sympathy and planted more that afternoon.

Arugula is friend to both the gardener and the cook. It grows incredibly fast, so it’s one of the first greens available in spring, and it’s got a peppery slap to it that helps your mouth wake up from a long winter eating grains and braised meat. Like all the best spicy greens, Eruca sativa is a member of the family Cruciferae. You may know it by other names: rocket in England, roquette in France, and rucola or rucchetta in Italy. And, really, nothing beats the classic Italian salad of spicy arugula leaves, umami-rich shavings of Parmigiano Reggiano, and a tart lemon vinaigrette.

In the past few years my local farmers have been selling something they call “wild arugula.” It’s not wild at all, but a completely different species, Diplotaxis erucoides, also called Sylvetta, that has delicate spidery leaves and shares a lot of the same flavor characteristics of garden arugula. I used it this week in a warm squid salad inspired by a recipe in Jonathan Waxman’s A Great American Cook. I made a rich, garlicky aioli, fried some bread crumbs in olive oil, and cut up some squid into thick rings. I seared the squid in a smoking-hot pan for just a minute or two, then tossed it into a big bowl with a generous pile of the wild arugula. I sprinkled on a little champagne vinegar, added the bread crumbs, and tossed again. Finally, I folded in just enough aioli to bind everything together. The greens wilted a little but kept their sharp spark, turning what might have been a rich, comforting dish into something that made me want to run around the block.

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