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Peppery Arugula Adds Punch to Salads & More

Fine Cooking Issue 58
Photos: Scott Phillips
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Arugula’s deliciously pungent flavor may come as a surprise if you’ve never tasted it—it packs a lot more zip than most other greens. And if you are familiar with this peppery, nutty leaf, it’s likely you know how much depth and character it brings to any salad, whether alone or mixed with other greens.  

But the great thing about arugula (also known as rucola, rocket, or roquette) is that while it makes a delicious garden salad, arugula is also excellent in cooked dishes such as pastas and sautés, and as a bed for grilled, seared, or roasted seafood and meats.

Arugula’s flavor ranges from subtle to intense

As both an organic produce grower and a caterer, I’ve had many chances to eat and cook with arugula. While the leaf always maintains its familiar flavor, the intensity changes depending upon the growing conditions and the age of the plant. Arugula that’s grown in hotter temperatures or that comes from more mature plants can be more on the peppery side, which is great for cooking. Young plants, mild climates, and lots of water will result in mild, tender leaves that are perfect for salad.  

At the market, choose arugula based on what you plan to do with it. For salads in which arugula is the main green, look for the youngest and mildest leaves available; they won’t have the pronounced lobes of older arugula and will be a lighter shade of green. Sometimes you’ll find them packaged as baby arugula. When you get these leaves home, drop them in a bowl of cool water to both rehydrate and wash them. Spin them dry and store them in a plastic bag in the fridge. Be sure the leaves are as dry as possible and don’t overstuff the bag. A good trick for keeping young greens fresh is to fill the bag no more than half full, then fill the rest of the bag with air (like a balloon) and tie it off, keeping the air inside with the greens.   

More mature arugula will be a darker shade of green and have lobed leaves. The darker the green, the stronger the flavor. Look for a smooth and even coloring. Steer clear of any leaves that look leathery or show signs of yellowing.  

More mature arugula provides a great accent mixed with milder greens, and it’s the best kind to use for Pasta with Peas, Arugula & Prosciutto, Seared Beef Tenderloin with Arugula & Mushrooms, and Arugula with Shrimp & Potatoes. While you needn’t wash mature leaves right away (they’re a bit hardier than young ones), you can treat them to the same storage process as younger leaves. Be sure to remove larger, tougher stems before cooking.  

Arugula should be thoroughly washed in a few changes of water, especially if the leaves are more mature. Arugula grows in sandy soil and tends to trap a fair bit of it. Taste a leaf before you continue with the recipe to be sure you’ve gotten rid of all the grit, which would mar that sassy flavor.

For salads, look for the youngest and mildest leaves.
More mature arugula is spicier, so it’s perfect for cooking.

Jazz up sandwiches with arugula

In place of the expected lettuce leaves, try arugula in sandwiches like these:

• On sourdough bread brushed with olive oil, try ricotta salata, sun-dried tomatoes, and a few arugula leaves. Season with freshly ground black pepper.
• On a French baguette halved lengthwise and crosswise and brushed with olive oil, lay a slice of fresh mozzarella, paper-thin prosciutto, and a few arugula leaves. Season with freshly ground black pepper.
• On slices of whole-wheat walnut bread or German-style pumpernickel, try a snack-style sandwich of blue cheese, a drizzle of honey or a few slices of dried figs, and a few arugula leaves. Season with freshly ground black pepper.
• On focaccia, layer a few slices of roast beef, your favorite sliced heirloom or hybrid tomatoes, a dab of grainy mustard, and a few arugula leaves.
• On sourdough bread smeared with tapenade, add a few slices of goat cheese and some arugula leaves.


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