Editor’s note: This week’s article is penned by Maggie Cooper, wife of usual Garden Spot columnist Jay Cooper.
Summertime conjures up many childhood memories for me. I grew up in southern Arizona, where we literally could (and did) fry eggs on the sidewalk to amaze out-of-town visitors. Daytime highs of 115 to 117 degrees were commonplace in July and August in our little town just northwest of Tucson.
My friends and I would double-dog-dare each other to run barefoot across the asphalt to see if we could make it to the other side without burning the soles of our feet. Fortunately, we were speedy and none of us ended up with injury!
There was no community swimming pool in our rural town so, to keep cool, we either ran through the sprinklers in the yard or, if we could sneak past my mom, we’d jump into an irrigation ditch that flowed nearby. Riding horses or bikes in the summer was out of the question.
All my family had to try to make the heat more bearable was a swamp cooler, which worked okay until monsoon season came with its high humidity. As you probably know, evaporative coolers only work well when the air has low moisture content — the opposite of monsoon time. And, you could forget about falling asleep at night easily because it was almost impossible to get comfortable with the oppressive heat. We’d open all the windows to catch a breeze. But, because the cotton field behind us was flood-irrigated, the hundreds of frogs who had taken up residence in the mud would croak all night — LOUDLY. It was basically a sweaty, noisy and miserable time of the year. To be honest with you, I still really dislike frogs to this day. I know they are basically harmless, but I don’t like that they jump suddenly, startling me every time, a fact that my husband Jay made use of too many times.
As I grew up, we drank pitchers of sweetened iced tea every day; there were no sodas or Kool-Aid in our house. There was also no fast food; Mom made every meal at home and summer meals were light, cool and easy to digest. I remember refreshing lunches of canned pears with cold cottage cheese and shredded cheese on top — or big slices of ice-cold watermelon, served on our dining room table that had been covered with newspaper for easy cleanup. And, we ate salad — lots and lots of salad.
Back in the day, a salad consisted of iceberg lettuce and maybe a tomato or two with a splash or two of Italian dressing. It wasn’t really exciting, or filling, so consequently I was not a fan of salads as an adult. Salad was okay as a side dish, but not a meal.
As I’ve grown older and had some health issues, I’ve seen the direct correlation between what I eat and how I feel. Consequently, I’ve broadened my concept of salads (and vegetables in general) and have developed a love of experimenting with a variety of vegetables and herbs (add some chicken, lean beef or fish) to create delicious, healthy entrees. One of my new favorites is arugula — a green with a funny name that has gained strong popularity over the last couple of decades.
Also known as salad rocket, roquette or rucola, arugula is a Mediterranean green with a distinct peppery flavor and aroma. The variety of names for the same thing comes from different regions of Italy, as well as France, and back to ancient Rome. While most in Britain would call this green “rocket” (closely associated with the French roquette), we Americans more commonly call it arugula. It’s likely this is a derivative of the southern Italy term rucola. Italian-Americans commonly used this word, and it found its way into our lexicon as arugula.
Whatever you call it, it’s very easy to grow in Utah and seeds should be sown in the garden as soon as the last frost is past. Like lettuce and other leafy crops, it will not survive well once the high temperatures of summer arrive and will tend to “bolt” (go to seed) and become bitter, ultra-peppery and lose its tender texture. With its mildly spicy taste, raw arugula is often added to salads to punch up the flavor, but the leafy green can also be eaten sautéed or steamed. It is a “pick and come” crop like spinach and kale, meaning you can remove a few leaves for dinner and the plant will continue to grow new ones until the temperatures get too high. Plants that do bolt either make their way to the chicken coop or the compost pile around our place.
Arugula provides numerous health benefits due to its high nutrient density. It likely originated in the Mediterranean region from Morocco and Portugal in the west to Syria, Lebanon and Turkey in the east. Like many of the darkest, most flavorful leafy green vegetables, arugula is low in calories, making it an excellent dietary choice when you’re trying to achieve or maintain a healthy body weight. With just eight calories per two-cup serving and no fat, fresh arugula has virtually no impact on your daily calorie allowance.
At the same time, it’s nutrient-packed to provide substantial amounts of vitamins A, K and C, folate, calcium, iron, potassium and magnesium. In fact, arugula is among the top 10 most nutrient-dense foods — it’s almost 30 percent more nutrient-dense than cabbage and nearly 50 percent more nutrient-dense than cauliflower. This means that adding arugula to your diet helps you control calories without sacrificing nutrition.
Grown as an edible herb in the Mediterranean area since Roman times, it was mentioned by various classical authors as, no kidding, an aphrodisiac. Some writers assert that for this reason, during the Middle Ages, it was forbidden to grow arugula in monasteries!
Arugula was traditionally collected in the wild or grown in home gardens along with such herbs as parsley and basil. It is now grown commercially from Italy to Iowa to Brazil, and is available for purchase in supermarkets and farmers’ markets throughout the world.
Adding arugula to your diet helps to close the culinary gap between Tooele Valley and the rest of the world. Here are some ideas. In Italy, raw arugula is often added to pizzas just before the baking period ends or immediately afterwards, so that it will not wilt in the heat. It is also used in the Italian dish cavatiéddi, where large amounts of coarsely chopped arugula are added to pasta seasoned with a homemade sauce. Chopped arugula can be added to sauces, then used as a condiment for cold meats or fish. A popular Brazilian salad contains arugula with mozzarella cheese and sun-dried tomatoes. In Cyprus and Greece, arugula can be found in omelets.
Arugula is part of the diet for people from Egypt to Turkey and West Asia to Northern India. With something that is so easy to grow right here in our valley, and has so much appeal all over the world, there is no excuse to not add this great crop to your garden’s production. You’ll soon be finding lots of uses in meal preparation and you’ll know first-hand what the all the excitement is about!
Jay Cooper can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org, or you can visit youtube.com/dirtfarmerjay for videos on gardening, shop skills, culinary arts and landscaping.