Arugula, rugula, rucola, roquette and rocket are one and the same, a leafy green plant which is a relative of cabbage, belonging to the brassica family. It grew wild in the Mediterranean, and in parts of Asia, and although it has been popular as a salad green since Roman times, it’s only been cultivated on a large scale since the 1990s.
What we now buy as wild rocket (Diplotaxis tenuifolia) is not foraged from the wild but is one of the two commercially grown crops in New Zealand. It has thin pointed jagged green leaves and is more pungent than regular rocket (Eruca sativa). The latter has fleshier more tender leaves but can also pack a peppery punch if left to mature. Homegrown rocket grown from seed, also seems to be stronger and more pungent than commercially grown rocket.
Young rocket leaves are peppery like radish, but more mature leaves, especially those grown organically, deliver a wasabi-like hit which is mouth-filling, spicy, savoury and almost meaty. Fat softens the pungency, so oil dressings and cheeses work well with rocket, as do olives and avocados. Fruity ingredients are another great combination, especially citrus. A ubiquitous restaurant salad, though a perfect one is rare to find, consists of rocket leaves, sweet juicy slivers of pear, olive oil dressing and shavings of parmesan or pecorino. Add walnuts, flaked almonds or pine nuts as you will. A handful of mint leaves adds a fresh note. Rocket also adds interest to green salads and mixed leaf salad combinations with olives, avocado and tomatoes are great for summertime.
Rocket is a cinch to grow but you’ve got to keep it picked or it will quickly bolt, start flowering and go to seed. Keep nipping out the flower heads every day or two in warmer weather. If the plants get away on you – and they invariably do, trim the plants right back and add the flowers to salads, or let them go to seed then shake the flowers over the space in the garden where you want the next batch of rocket to grow, give the soil a water and the seedlings will pop up in a matter of days. To slow down the plant’s development in warmer weather, grow rocket in partial shade.
Rocket is high in vitamin C, iron and calcium, and it contains a range of other minerals. It also aids digestion and the Italians make a digestivo drink, which is not to everyone’s taste, called rucolino to be enjoyed at the end of a meal.
No other green has propelled itself to the top of the salad bowl in quite the same way as rocket. Maybe it’s because you can do more with it than you can with other baby leaves or salad greens. While rocket shines as a salad green, full flavoured and punchy, it can also be pureed and made into pesto to serve on top of pasta or as you would basil pesto (it’s particularly good with fish). Mixed with soft white cheese or with rich mascarpone cream and flavoured with parmesan, it is used in stuffed pastas. The leaves are also strewn atop cooked pizzas (best served immediately), or served on top or folded through pasta and risotto dishes. Linguine with Feta, Broad Beans, Pine Nuts & Rocket
Photography Aaron McLean http://www.aaronmclean.com
Whichever way you enjoy it, buy fresh rocket and use it as soon after purchase as possible while it is fresh and bouncy and full of goodness. Store it refrigerated in an unsealed plastic bag lined with paper towels. I’m not a fan of those ubiquitous cellophane bags of leaves sold everywhere these days – so often you open the bag only to find the greens stink of fish or seaweed. Much better to grow your own, of course, but if you can’t do that, at least buy your salad from a place that sells leaves in an open box that you can tong into a bag – that way you can see if it is fresh.