If you think salads are boring, you need some arugula in your life. Popular in Italian cooking, this innocent-looking leaf packs a surprisingly peppery punch, and is a great way to liven up your leafy greens.
What is arugula?
Also known as rocket, arugula is a popular salad leaf native to the Mediterranean. Although it resembles lettuce, and is often included in spring salad mixes, it is actually a member of the mustard family, which also includes watercress, radish and wasabi, and like its cousins, this veggie bites back.
Best known for its spicy, peppery kick, arugula can be used to turn up the heat on salads, sandwiches, pastas and soups. It also has a slightly bitter flavour, with a fresh, herbal quality that mixes well with other salad leaves. Its texture is similar to spinach, with tender leaves and a crisp stem.
Arugula leaves can be picked while young and tender for a milder flavour, or left until mature for that full peppery hit. Cooking will also cause the flavour to mellow a little, so if you find the flavour too extreme, try wilting them in a pan with some oil and garlic.
Nutrition and benefits
Like most leafy greens, arugula is very nutrient dense, meaning that it packs a high number of nutrients into very few calories. One cup (5g) of arugula contains just 5 calories, and is full of vitamins and minerals, all of which play important roles in keeping your body healthy.
The same serving size provides an impressive 27.7% of your daily value for vitamin K, which helps with blood coagulation and healing wounds. If you are taking blood thinners, you should consult your doctor before altering your diet, as arugula may interfere with your medication.
Arugula provides a good source of vitamins A and C, both of which are powerful antioxidants and help to maintain a healthy immune system. Vitamin A is also responsible for cell growth, healthy vision, and helping to maintain kidney, lung, and heart function.
Arugula is rich in potassium, which is vital for heart and nerve function, as well as helping your muscles to contract normally. It also contains calcium, which helps maintain healthy teeth, bones, muscles and nerves, and folate which helps your body produce DNA and other genetic material.
There are many different types of arugula, with lots of interesting leaf shapes and flavours ranging from a mild pepperiness to an almost radish-like pungency. Here are some of our favourites.
Astro has a milder flavour than other varieties of arugula. Its white flower is edible, and can be used to make salads look pretty, but the leaves will become more bitter after the plant has flowered.
Garden tangy is an Italian arugula that works well in pasta and salads. It has attractive, curly-edged leaves and a strong, spicy flavour.
Italian cress has large, lettuce-like leaves, and tastes great in both hot and cold dishes. Try it sautéed like spinach, or added to soups or stews.
Red dragon has attractive serrated leaves with striking purple-red veins running through the centre. It is milder than many other varieties, with a pleasant, subtle pepperiness.
Rocket is the most commonly available variety, and is what most people think of as arugula. In some countries rocket is used as a generic term for all varieties of arugula.
Selvatica has a tangy flavour and thin, dandelion-like leaves. It is more heat-tolerant than other varieties, and tends to be grown in warmer climates.
Slow bolt gets its name because its leaves age well, rather than ‘bolting’, the horticultural term for when a plant starts putting its energy into making seeds, and becomes less good to eat. It’s young, tender leaves can be used in sandwiches and salads, and it’s older, larger leaves can be used in cooking, like spinach or watercress.
Named after everyone’s favourite fiery Japanese horseradish, this variety is extra-spicy, like its namesake, and tastes great with Japanese food.
Wild rocket is another particularly spicy variety, and can be used to make a deliciously punchy take on pesto.
Arugula, tomato, caper and Parmesan salad
Arugula, tomato, caper and Parmesan salad. Sweet, juicy tomatoes and spicy arugula are a marriage made in food heaven, and they can be found together in many Italian and Italian-inspired dishes. This simple but flavour-filled salad adds shavings of umami-rich Parmesan and salty capers for an elegant appetiser or a light, summery lunch. Perfect with a glass of crisp white Orvieto Classico.
Arugula, omelette and tomato baguettes
Arugula, omelette and tomato baguettes: arugula and tomato team up again for this gourmet twist on a classic salad sandwich. Simple, filling and tasty, these vegetarian-friendly baguettes are the perfect quick and easy brunch and provide plenty of nutrients.
Arugula salad with strips of marinated rump steak and peanuts
Arugula salad with strips of marinated rump steak and peanuts: a salad with real wow-factor, this light and tasty beef dish is bursting with Asian flavours, and the peppery arugula complements the meat perfectly. Simple to make but sure to impress at a casual summer dinner party dish.
Spaghetti with smoked salmon and arugula
Spaghetti with smoked salmon and arugula: with flaky, oily salmon and some gentle heat from the arugula, this satisfying and healthy pasta dish is ready in minutes, and makes a great midweek dinner. Serve with whole wheat spaghetti for a healthier fibre-packed alternative.
Orecchiette with beans and arugula pesto
Orecchiette with beans and arugula pesto: another quick and easy midweek pasta, this dish makes a nutritious and filling choice for vegetarians, with kidney beans and orecchiette pasta tossed in a punchy arugula pesto. Traditionally from Puglia in Southern Italy, orecchiette literally means “little ears”.
How to store arugula
Before storing arugula, you should always wash it first, even though you’re not going to eat it just yet. Washing can help arugula stay fresher for longer by killing bacteria that could cause the leaves to spoil and discolour.
Arugula should be stored in cold, moist conditions to prevent wilting. Seal the leaves inside a paper bag with a damp cloth or paper towel, make some perforations to prevent excess condensation, and put it in the salad crisper section of your refrigerator. Stored in this way, arugula will keep for 5 to 6 days, but the sooner it is eaten, the better it will taste. Discard any leaves that are wilted, yellow, or have brown spots.
Freezing is possible, but should be used as a last resort, as it will impair the flavour. One trick that is often used to preserve the flavour is to freeze your arugula inside a protective layer of olive oil. Place the leaves in a shallow container and pour over the oil, freeze until completely solid, then break into smaller pieces to be stored in freezer bags. Even using this method, arugula that has been frozen lacks freshness, and will work better in cooked dishes than salads.
With its subtle heat and pungent flavour, arugula pesto is fast becoming a popular alternative to the original. Find out how to make it and how to use it with these arugula pesto recipes and ideas.