The number one leafy green in my garden is not lettuce or spinach, but the rustic Mediterranean green known as arugula or rocket (Eruca sativa). Much more than just another green, rocket leads a double life as a weed-smothering companion to my onions in spring. In autumn, rocket becomes an edible green manure. When chopped and turned into the soil or heaped upon the compost pile in either season, rocket leaves become a natural biofumigant, suppressing diseases with their mustard oil glucosinolates.
It wasn't always like this. My love affair with rocket got off to a rocky start, because with my first crop I waited until the leaves grew large to pick them. By then they tasted like burned tires, but a gardening friend urged me to try again, but to harvest baby rocket next time. I'm glad I persisted, because young rocket leaves are truly delicious in salads, sandwiches, and pureed into pesto. Even better, I soon discovered that rocket is one of the few spring greens that will produce mature seeds in time for replanting in fall.
How to Grow Rocket
Starting with a packet of seeds, plant arugula by scattering the seeds over a prepared garden bed and patting them into place with your hand. Under good conditions the seeds will sprout in only a few days. As soon as I have thinned seedlings to 4 inches (10 cm) apart, I place a row cover tunnel over rocket plantings I plan to use as salad greens. Garden fleece is the only way to prevent flea beetles from finding the plants and peppering them with holes, and I like my salad rocket to be picture perfect.
Flea beetles do mar the leaves of rocket grown as a companion crop to spring onions, but the holes magically disappear when the leaves are cooked. This is the destiny of my big spring crop of rocket grown in the onion patch. Washed, chopped and steamed, the tender greens form the foundation for rocket recipes such as my favorite, rocket pesto.
Under row cover or between onions, the spring rocket crop passes quickly as lengthening days trigger the plants to bolt, and leaf quality deteriorates as the plants grow tall and produce flowers. Rocket flower buds and flowers are edible, and the petals are particularly good when snipped into summer salads.
I pull up or turn under bolted rocket plants in spring, leaving behind at least one pair of plants to produce seeds for my fall crop. As starry rocket flowers give way to fat seed pods, I often provide stakes to keep the hip-high seed spikes up off the ground. When the seedpods turn tan and start popping open in August, I gather and store some seeds for replanting the next spring, and then crunch the seed-bearing branches over places where I want to grow rocket for autumn harvest. The fresh seeds show their eagerness to grow by germinating overnight.
When grown in autumn, cool autumn weather helps rocket keep its eating quality for weeks rather than days, and rocket plants show little interest in bolting when days are getting shorter rather than longer. Best of all, flea beetles are much less active in fall, so autumn rocket grows without aggravation from the little chewers.
Garden Arugula Recipes
The first tender rocket leaves of spring go into salads, usually mixed with lettuce to balance rocket's rich, smoky flavour. Rocket salads need not be elaborate because the greens deliver so much flavour. My rocket salad blueprint includes a soft cheese or olives for saltiness, some fruit for sweetness, and toasted nuts for crunch. From there I match the dressing to the flavours in the rest of the meal.
Cooked rocket can be substituted for spinach in any recipe, but I prefer to braise coarsely chopped arugula in olive oil with a few cloves of garlic and eat it as a side dish, as Europeans have been doing for thousands of years. Like spinach and chard, rocket can be blanched and frozen, but most of mine end ups as thick green rocket pesto to spread over pizza or focaccia, or to toss with hot pasta or potatoes. Rocket pesto also can be used as a condiment for fish or meat, or as a basis for creamy dips or spreads.
To make rocket pesto for the freezer, I puree cooked rocket ( that has had its excess water squeezed out) with enough olive oil to make a slurry, plus a little sea salt. I spoon the pesto into muffin tins, and move the pucks of pesto to freezer bags when they are frozen hard. Great rocket pesto also includes garlic, cheese and nuts, which don't do well in the freezer. But adding chopped fresh garlic or other ingredients to thawed rocket pesto gives you the makings for many masterful meals.
By Barbara Pleasant