Arugula (Eruca vesicaria sativa) is a leafy green herb of the mustard family. Known also as rocket, Italian cress, roquette, and rucola, it has elongated dark green leaves that are lobed like the leaves of an oak. In the ground, the plant resembles a loose lettuce with long, slender leaves.
This herb is related to both the radish and watercress, and the flavor of the leaves is similarly hot and peppery. The leaves can be between 3 and 8 inches (7.5 and 20 centimeters) in length, depending on the maturity of the leaf. Native to the Mediterranean region, arugula has been grown as a vegetable since the Roman era. The Romans ate the leaves, used the seeds to flavor oil, and made aphrodisiac and medicinal compounds from the plant.
Arugula is very low in calories and is a good source of vitamins A and C, folate, calcium, and magnesium. It can be eaten raw, added to salads with other salad greens, or cooked. The leaves are excellent sauteed lightly in olive oil or steamed and added to pasta dishes. The plant can also be made into pesto and served with pasta or potatoes or as an accompaniment to roasted or grilled meats.
Wild plants have smaller, spicier leaves than the cultivated variety. Arugula is relatively easy to grow in the home garden. When the plants go to seed, the edible flowers may be collected and used in salads. Succession plantings ensure a supply of fresh leaves all summer long. It is worth noting that the older the leaves, the more intense the flavor. Younger leaves are tender and have a milder taste, and therefore are best for salads. Older leaves may be slightly bitter and are more appropriate for sauteing or steaming.
Once harvested, the leaves spoil quickly and should be used within a couple of days. Cooks should rinse them thoroughly to remove any sand or soil and dry them well in a salad spinner or between layers of papers towels. They can be stored in a plastic bag in the refrigerator until ready to use.