Arugula eaters

Think of it as a flavorful alternative to salad greens like romaine lettuce or to cooking greens like spinach.

arugala 88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
arugala 88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
After Barack Obama mentioned arugula in a speech, he was incessantly mocked as an elitist. Years ago, another Democratic presidential candidate, Michael Dukakis, was accused as being out of touch with the average person when he admitted liking Belgian endive. Frankly, I always wondered why Americans overwhelmingly prefer to see their politicians gobble up greasy fast-food hamburgers and hot dogs served with deep fried potatoes. From a nutrition aspect, these attitudes display a lack of awareness of the value of greens. The result is reflected in problems plaguing the diet in America and much of the Western world. Basically, vegetables just don't get enough respect. Arugula, a peppery green also called rocket or rocket cress, is a great example of a tasty, nutritious food that deserves more attention. According to my friend Dana Jacobi, author of The Essential Best Foods Cookbook, dark green arugula leaves provide some of the same nutritional benefits as broccoli and cabbage. In the kitchen, arugula plays two roles. Think of it as a flavorful alternative to salad greens like romaine lettuce or to cooking greens like spinach. Popular in salads when young and small, with a slightly nutty flavor, arugula often appears in medleys of baby lettuces. Once the arugula gets larger and more mature, it's good when cooked slightly, added to soups at the last minute or lightly sauteed. Arugula is very easy to grow and if you have some in your garden, its two stages of maturity quickly become familiar. For salad, the leaves should be picked when the plants are as small as possible. When I see the delicate white arugula flowers in my herb garden from my window, I think, "Darn - I'm too late!" Once arugula is in full bloom, it has passed the stage when it is tender and at its best. The good thing is that those pretty flowers turn to seeds, and the following year, you have lots more arugula. Janyne Richert of Kibbutz Ramat Hakovesh, a reader of this column, gave me a great idea for using arugula. Janyne, who loves to experiment, wrote to me that she likes to prepare pasta (any kind you like) and while it's cooking, to add a whole bunch of arugula to the cooking water, then to drain the pasta and greens together and top them with a sauce made of a few garlic cloves and cherry tomatoes fried in olive oil for 3 or 4 minutes. She noted that it's easy and really tasty. When I asked what gave her the idea, Janyne replied, "I saw it in an Italian movie, tried it and liked it." That's what I call being inspired. It was appropriate that she saw it in an Italian movie, as arugula is an Italian green. In Cucina Fresca, Los Angeles authors Viana La Place and Evan Kleiman describe arugula's jagged-edged leaves as having "an intense, pleasing aroma and a strong, spicy flavor with a slightly bitter finish and a pronounced taste." This assertive flavor makes arugula a good match for beef and for flavorful fish like tuna. La Place and Kleiman like arugula as a bed for warm seared beef, garnished with a mixture of black olives, tomatoes, oregano and olive oil, and for a sort of chicken schnitzel, with fresh rosemary added to the breading and a topping of chopped arugula, tomatoes and olive oil. For their seafood in a spicy, fresh tomato sauce, they use an interesting technique, spooning the hot stew over chopped arugula to soften the greens just slightly while still keeping their fresh flavor. In Tuscany, grilled beef is often topped with arugula strips, wrote Micol Negrin, in The Italian Grill. She uses grilled tuna steaks the same way and embellishes them with black olives. For a simple smoked fish appetizer, Negrin combines arugula with the fish and dresses them with lemon juice and olive oil. I find that arugula's leaves are a delightful addition to salads of milder lettuces. I like it very much in Israeli salad too and in other "chopped" vegetable salads, like the one below. La Place and Kleiman make bruschetta by topping grilled, garlic-rubbed country bread with a salad-like mixture of chopped arugula and diced tomatoes and a generous drizzle of olive oil. They associate this antipasto with Rome in summertime, when this open-face sandwich can make a meal, served with a firm, fresh piece of buffalo milk mozzarella. When buying arugula, avoid bunches with yellow spots, as the leaves will wilt rapidly. Use arugula as soon as possible. Negrin notes that although arugula's leaves are pleasantly pungent and peppery, its stems are bitter. To efficiently prepare arugula for salads, Negrin suggests washing the arugula well, drying thoroughly, and stacking with all the stems facing in the same direction; then cutting the stems just where they meet the leaves, and discarding them. ARUGULA AND AVOCADO SALAD WITH TOMATOES AND CUCUMBERS This salad is a lovely accompaniment for broiled or grilled salmon or other fish, or for a vegetable burger. Use an avocado that is ripe but not too soft so you can dice it. When serving the salad as an appetizer, you can substitute feta or Bulgarian cheese for the avocado. To turn the dish into a meatless, main-course salad, add 11⁄2 cups cooked white beans and double the amount of arugula. 4 medium tomatoes, diced small 3 small slim cucumbers, diced small 1 or 2 green onions, chopped, or 1⁄3 cup very thin quarter-slices red onion 2 to 3 cups coarsely chopped tender arugula, or mixed chopped arugula and shredded romaine lettuce 1 ripe avocado, preferably Hass salt and freshly ground pepper 1 Tbsp. fresh lemon juice 1 to 2 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil 1⁄4 to 1⁄3 cup quartered pitted olives, black or green Combine tomatoes, cucumber, onions and arugula and romaine in a bowl and toss lightly. Just before serving, halve avocado, remove peel and scoop out meat. Cut avocado in dice. Add to salad and toss lightly. Sprinkle with salt and pepper and toss again. Add lemon juice, olive oil and olives. Serve as soon as possible. Makes 4 servings. Faye Levy is the author of Healthy Cooking for the Jewish Home and of the award-winning Faye Levy's International Vegetable Cookbook.