Arugula, or rocket, is one of the oldest crops of the near East, where it was considered a potent aphrodisiac. It is grown today, especially in Italy, Greece and Turkey, as a salad vegetable and meat garnish for its somewhat bitter leaves, which are made milder by cooking or frying.
The seeds are hot, but less so than mustard seeds, and are used as a spice together with the leaves. It is an ingredient of the Italian mixed salad Misticanza, a speciality eaten in Rome since antiquity. (The French version is Mesclun.)
Its taste is described as combining the pungency of mustard, the peppery flavor of watercress and its own nutty flavor.
It is also used to make rocket sauces, in which the leaves are mixed with sugar or honey, vinegar and toasted bread.
In Italy, it is boiled with spaghetti, then seasoned with garlic and oil.
In Spain, it is traditonally used in La Roda and Montealegre del Castillo (Al bacete) in the preparation of gazpachos of La Mancha, an ancestral dish that includes partridge and rabbit meat and unleavened bread (gazpacho) with lightly fried rocket. Some scholars associate the tradition to primitive fertility rituals.
Today arugula is not cultivated very much in Spain, and many people think it is because of moral reasons (because of its reputation as an aphrodisiac). It may also be because of its characteristic bitter flavor, which is not to everyone’s liking and is due to glucosinolates and the high content of mineral salts.
The use of nitrogen fertilization and shading would allow younger, more juicy rosettes to be harvested, which have a milder flavor. In Spain its use can probably only be increased through the promotion of the traditional dishes that require it.
Its popularity increased in the United Kingdom and the U.S. in the 1990s.
Rocket is an herbaceous annual, growing 8-24 inches tall. The basal leaves grow in a rosette and the flowers have white or light yellow petals. Flowers are also edible. The wild form flowers from February to June, and the cultivated form into mid-summer.
Rocket is a very hardy plant that requires little care. It is sown direct in late winter or early spring in shallow furrows.
It is best to cover with light sieved soil to encourage emergence. It requires little irrigation and fertilizing, and is usually hoed by hand.
Plant the seeds a half inch deep in rows 12 inches apart, thinning to 3-4 inches apart when the plants are 2-3 inches tall. Succession sow every couple of weeks for continuous supply if whole plant harvesting is done.
Keep well watered to prevent plants from becoming too bitter.
This crop has few pests.
Leaves may be harvested as early as 6 weeks after seeding. Either whole plants or select leaves may be taken. Harvest when leaves are young and tender, and no more than 2-3 inches long. When the undersides of the leaves become furry, they are too old, tough and bitter.
Arugula is not harvested in the summer, when the flavor is too strong and the plant will bolt.
Seeds are widely available from major seed sources.
Post-Harvest and Packing
Young plants with 3-6 inch leaves are harvested and bunched, packing 18-24 bunches into a bushel box.
Requires gentle hand harvesting to prevent breakage and bruising. Quick cooling and direct shipment to market provides highest quality to the consumer.
Arugula is high in sulforophane, Vitamins C, A and K and Antioxidants.