Arugula, that dark, peppery leafy green that seemed so terribly chic 15 years ago, has really settled in to become an adored staple. Unlike radicchio, the other trendy green of the 1980s, arugula never went out of style.
Now you find it everywhere -- fat, pungent leaves in cello-bags at the supermarket; tender baby arugula in gourmet shop boxes; and in every manner at farmers’ markets, where you can even find delicately spicy arugula flowers in the spring.
Arugula is so ubiquitous, so delicious, so distinctive that it shouldn’t be relegated to the salad bowl. It’s also terrific sauteed as a side dish, simmered in soups, added to stuffings for meat and poultry -- even pulverized into a pesto. You can use it as a substitute for peppery watercress in many recipes. Depending on the treatment, arugula takes on a different personality -- and every one of them is charming.
Still, a classic arugula salad remains one of life’s great pleasures. The arugula salad with prosciutto, a very simple affair with just a slick of fresh, fruity olive oil, a drizzle of aged balsamic vinegar (this is the time to pull out that 20-year-old balsamico you’ve been guarding) and some shavings of Parmesan, is so compelling, we could eat it several times a week. It lends itself to infinite seasonal variation -- add quartered figs or sliced blood oranges; what’s important is the way the sweet, rich balsamic plays off the peppery greens. And be sure to use the best ingredients: top-quality olive oil, aged Parmigiano-Reggiano, thinly sliced prosciutto di Parma.
Arugula adds a bright accent to highly flavored dishes, cutting richness almost as a lemon does. The fried breaded veal in the Wiener schnitzel recipe was softened with the accompaniment of sauteed arugula.
Pound the veal very thin so you’ll end up with a tender yet crispy piece of meat. After sauteing garlic and shallots, stir in the arugula leaves. You’ll want to cook them just until they wilt so they retain a bright green color.
Arugula can also be used as you would an herb, alone or in combination with other herbs.
A favorite of recipe tester Mary Ellen Rae in the Times Test Kitchen is arugula pesto. Arugula is blended with toasted almonds and kalamata olives to make a bright green pesto sauce that is delicious with pasta. It’s a wonderful showcase for raw arugula, whose flavor comes through loud and clear. Use a good-quality olive oil and sprinkle over a few chopped tomatoes for color. This pesto would also be great served with steamed or baked potatoes.
When shopping for arugula, be aware that the leaves vary in size, with larger, older leaves tending to be a little tougher and more pungent in flavor than the younger smaller leaves. Fresh leaves are bright green and free of spots and bruises.
It’s definitely a time-saver to pick up the bags of pre-washed arugula leaves. If you do buy bulk arugula, the leaves need to be washed much as spinach leaves do: Rinse them in a big bowl or sink full of water, so any sand or grit will go to the bottom, then scoop out the leaves onto a paper towel to drain or put them in a salad spinner to remove excess water.
Arugula should be stored in plastic bags in the refrigerator for no more than two days.