“Yecchhhh!” my veterinarian friend Brad exclaimed. He spat out shreds of the arugula I’d handed him and stomped off across the pasture. “That’s the worst thing I ever tasted,” he blared over his shoulder. It was the mid-’80s, when arugula was the gateway green to a wider world of new “gourmet” greens. My mother schooled me to learn to like new foods, so I figured timid eaters would eventually come to love arugula, and most have. But taste in food is very personal, and there’s a good chance that Brad is still picking those slender, lobed leaves out of his salad.
Fruits and vegetables have an astonishingly wide range of flavors, produced by multiple compounds in association with one another, and with the conditions under which they’re grown, prepared and consumed. We don’t have a precise vocabulary for those flavors. To me, a lemon is sour, acidic or tart. A habanero pepper is hot. Radicchio is bitter. But those words are often used interchangeably — along with sharp, biting, spicy, harsh, tangy, acrid, pungent and piquant. Their only antonyms are sweet, mild or bland.
Strong flavor elements in vegetables and fruits often make them more nutritious and also more interesting — up until the point where one’s individual taste threshold says “No.” And we all have our own predilections. My husband loves things tart and bitter. I like them spicy and hot.
The reason I thought about Brad is that the arugula in our greenhouse right now is pretty close to perfect. We are growing a variety called Astro; its leaves are lush, bright green, smooth and flawless. They have a distinctive arugula flavor that surpasses the hydroponic version, but without the excessive bite of arugula grown in summer. In fact, all the leafy crops we grow in winter are sweetened or at least made more mild-tasting by the cold, unlike fruiting crops such as tomatoes or strawberries that need the heat of the sun to ripen and turn sweet.
The message for the gardener is clear: Grow arugula in cool weather. As temperatures climb, the plants turn pale, lose moisture, fall prey to the ravages of flea beetles and finally send up flower stalks and go to seed. At that point, even I find it too hot to eat. You can mitigate the process by growing arugula in soil rich in organic matter, to help keep it consistently moist, and by shading it with a floating row cover. That will also exclude flea beetles if applied right after sowing. But it’s best to start your crop as soon in spring as the soil can be worked, then follow with fall and winter ones after a summer break.
Gardeners have more choice in arugula varieties than they used to. For regular arugula (Eruca sativa), Johnny’s Selected Seeds lists three, plus four of the so-called wild arugula, sought after by chefs, which is actually a different species (Diplotaxis erucoides). In my experience, the wild is more winter-hardy and more pungent, but slower growing and not so velvety. Rob Johnston, the company’s founder, told me he still prefers the original unimproved classic, simply labeled Arugula, which is just hot enough. But of course it’s a matter of taste.
As part of the late-winter cleanup, avoid the temptation to cut back ragged-looking lavender plants. A hard prune will kill this herb. Wait until fresh growth appears in April for a light trim of dead wood. Similarly, a lavender that appears dead from the harsh winter might resprout in a few weeks. Be patient.
— Adrian Higgins
Damrosch’s latest book is “The Four Season Farm Gardener’s Cookbook.”