Carolee's Herb Farm

Carolee's Herb Farm

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Favorite Herb: Arugula

Today (January 21st) I worked in the greenhouse, seeding and taking cuttings.  It was a beautiful, sunny day and so warm I was able to work in a T-shirt.  The greenhouse smelled of rosemarys, which are blooming with blue, pink, or white flowers.  The potted lemon tree is hanging with large fruits that are almost ripe.  Several of the angel trumpets are also blooming, with their large flowers emitting a strong perfume.  The bench of begonias is filled with colorful blooms.  All in all, it was a lovely day to be an herb farmer!  First I seeded, placing magical seeds in shallow furrows in special flats.  When all the varieties on my list were safely watered and placed on heat mats or under lights, I turned to taking cuttings.  As I walked down the aisles looking for likely candidates, my eye caught the lovely foliage of arugula.  There were seedlings of various sizes.  Arugula is early in the alphabet, so it is on the top shelf of the culinary herb section of the plant sales area all summer.  It also readily self-seeds, so in flats of anise hyssop, bay and chives, which were located on shelves below all during the growing season, volunteer seedlings of this spicy herb are now growing abundantly!  I spent a quarter of an hour carefully harvesting the tiny seedlings from the pots, placing them in a plastic bag and anticipating a tasty salad this evening.

Arugula was often considered a “wild” salad ingredient.  Because it self-seeds so well, early on it escaped from cultivated gardens and traveled throughout the meadows and hedgerows.  It has been grown since ancient times, and can be found growing wild throughout Europe.  In southern France, around Nice, it is abundant and used in a green salad that is a specialty of the region, called “mesclun.”  The word is derived from a local word mescla which means “mixture.”  For hundreds of years, the farmers and restaurants around Nice have made this salad their specialty.  It was generally a mixture of early spring greens local to the area….arugula, dandelion, sorrel,  purslane, watercress, parsley, chervil and others, dressed simply with a drizzle of olive oil, a squeeze of fresh lemon juice, and a dash of salt.  The colonists from Europe brought the seeds with them to America, where it became known as “rocket.”  Today, mesclun has come to mean any mixture of tasty fresh greens, and one can find them in any trendy seed catalog or grocery.  It also may contain radicchio, mustard greens, tiny lettuce seedlings and beet greens, but arugula is an important ingredient..

Arugula is an extremely tasty and nutritious green that is best grown in cool conditions.  It is grown easily from seed in average soil and a sunny or lightly shaded location.  The dark green leaves have been described as lyre-shaped.  The leaves are harvested as soon as they are finger-length or longer.  When the plant is mature, or hot weather arrives, a seed stalk arises from the center.  Soon beige flowers with violet streaks are formed.  These are tasty additions to salads or to decorate canapés.  If the flowers are left to mature, tubular pods form that are filled with tiny brown, round seeds.  When the pods split, the seeds fall and begin growing a new crop as soon as cool temperatures arrive.

Since antiquity, arugula has been used as an aphrodisiac.  In the Middle Ages, it was used in an elixir to rehabilitate sexual organs.  It was deemed so powerful, that it was banned from cultivation in monastery gardens!

The flavor of arugula does depend on cultural conditions.  Wild arugula is often much spicier than cultivated plants.  It does taste much milder (some say it resembles hazelnuts, or smoked turkey) when grown quickly in good soil in cool temperatures.  The younger leaves will be milder than older ones.  Arugula is a wonderful ingredient to flavor cream cheese mixtures or salads.  In Venice, a delicious pizza smothered the tomatoes, mozzarella and arugula is served, which is worth duplicating, too!  One of my favorite uses is a “tuna” salad, in which I make it a vegetarian dish by replacing the tuna with arugula!

If you have not grown arugula, set aside a bit of space in your salad garden this season.  Enjoy the leaves, nibble the flowers, and allow it to self-seed.