Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Arugula! Arugula!

Back in the mid eighties, when my family of organic farmers began schlepping our goods to Seattle’s Pike Place Market, we were somewhat of a novelty. There were only two vendors carrying the new varieties of greens that were being introduced to the American palate. The organic movement had sprouted but the general public was not paying much attention. We painstakingly displayed and labeled our wares. One of the mustard greens had me stumped. It took me weeks to remember how to pronounce “arugula” much less spell it. In those days we called it “rocket”
The peppery taste of this rocket stuff intrigued me. I couldn’t get enough of it. It became my snacking indulgence grazing in the garden. I even munched the flowers. Then I became pregnant with my third son and lost my taste for it, just looking at it made me woozy.
Fortunately my enthusiasm returned and I eventually learned how to spell it. Today arugula is the signature of an upscale cook. Foodies put it on their burgers. You see it all over menus and in good grocery stores. The French call in roquette and the Italians call it rochetta. These midwinter days I call it my ace in the hole.
Last October I was contacted by a chef looking for a local grower. She is the culinary artist in residence at a nearby arts center. Her duties include making dinner 5 nights a week for her fellow artists. Her vision is to nourish with fresh local food. We met, and though it was late in the season, set of a system for weekly delivery.
As the weeks went on and winter set in I found the arugula patch to be my most consistent provider. Chef raved about it and wanted as much as I could pick. Her “fellows” had converted to the zesty taste. As winter progressed, the pickins got slimmer, but the plants kept putting out new growth and volunteer seedlings started popping up all over. Aha! Methinks we have a keeper here, a popular year round green, high in protein and vitamins, resilient to pests and easy to grow.
Now my arugula production is expanding, not only for chef but for other patrons as well. Small CSA’s (Community Supported Agriculture) are emerging everywhere to meet the demands of locavores. At any given time I have a succession of crops: seedlings sprouting indoors and out, transplants yielding small harvestable leaves, mature plants yielding bigger leaves, and others starting to bolt and flower. Left alone, the flowers will form a seed pod, dry out and drop seeds, which in turn will sprout anew. The gardener facilitates this process by collecting and drying the pods, then planting the seeds. The tattered leaves left on the older plants still carry some intense flavor. Voila! Make arugula pesto! What remains is pulled and layered into the compost pile.
Ah, the circle of life, a perfect model for sustainability.

Remember friends, these are just guidelines. Let your inner cook be your guide and the dressing will pull it all together. A winter arugula salad is a balance of taste and texture. Citrus is my pick for fruit because it is seasonal and pairs so well with the spice of arugula. Apples and pears work too. Cheese should be something with a little bite, like feta or pecorino. For nuts I prefer toasted sunflower seeds because my sweetie has teeth issues. Try almonds or even dry roasted Edamame. Play!

4 cups arugula, washed and chopped
1 cup fruit, sliced
¼ cup cheese, crumbled
¼ cup nuts

2 tbsp. fresh lemon juice
3 tbsp. red wine vinegar
1 tsp. honey
¼ cup good olive oil
salt and pepper to taste

Combine lemon juice, vinegar and honey in small bowl. Whisk until the honey dissolves. Add the olive oil, salt and pepper and mix vigorously. Taste the dressing. Add more vinegar if it’s too sweet, more honey if it’s too sour. Place in the refrigerator to let the flavors mix. Dress salad right before serving.

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