I love this time of year when New Jersey’s produce season is just getting started, and some of the first and best items are arugula and dandelion greens. These immunity-boosting bitter greens are high in vitamins B, C and K and are an excellent source of antioxidants, which aid in detoxifying the body.
All About Arugula
Also known as “rocket” or “rocket salad” in England and the U.S., “rucola” in Italy, and “roquette” in France, arugula originated in the Mediterranean and was introduced to North America by Italian immigrants. It’s now in such demand by restaurants that it’s cultivated worldwide and in greenhouses. Based on its popularity, you’ll see people growing arugula in tiny backyard plots and even in pots on windowsills in New York City’s Little Italy. Few self-respecting Italian cooks will go without it for long.
Arugula has fine, smooth, dark green leaves notched towards the bottom of the stem. A member of the mustard family and closely related to radishes, it has a sharp, spicy flavor somewhat similar to watercress. If it has no bite, it isn’t fresh. Its peppery taste actually gets stronger in the field as the weather gets hotter.
Selection, Storage and Preparation
Available year-round, arugula is most plentiful in spring and fall. Always buy arugula with roots attached. While it will lose zip and flavor even with roots on, that will happen faster with roots off. Look for bright, tender, fresh-looking leaves with no signs of yellowing, dark spots or limpness. Because its flavor and texture fades very fast, use arugula as soon as possible after purchase. If you have to keep it a day or two, don’t wash it or remove the roots; just sprinkle with a little water, wrap in paper towels or a clean cloth towel, put it in a plastic bag, and refrigerate. Remove the roots and wash only when you’re ready to use it. Arugula tends to be very sandy, so be sure to wash it well, as you would spinach.
Arugula makes a terrific salad by itself, simply dressed with a little vinegar, olive oil, salt and pepper to taste, and it adds a wonderful tart, peppery profile when mixed in a salad of milder lettuces and greens. I think it’s delicious on sandwiches (especially tomato sandwiches) and added raw to pasta with a little garlic and oil (because the hot pasta steams it just enough).
Or you can sauté some minced garlic in olive oil, toss in a bunch of arugula, sauté briefly, and pour the mixture over cooked pasta (the oil will pick up the flavor of the arugula). Be careful not to overcook arugula or it will lose its characteristic peppery flavor. Arugula can be frozen or dried and used as an herb. When dried, it loses some of its bite, as it tends to do when overcooked.
New Jersey Dandelions
Most Italian people love this bitter green because it reminds them of the old country. I didn’t have a taste for dandelion greens when I was younger, but I grew to love them as I got older .
The dandelion greens found at our markets are typically a chicory hybrid. These “cultivated” dandelions grow upright instead of low to the ground, have longer leaves that can measure 12 to 14 inches, and bear tiny blue flowers instead of yellow flowers. True wild dandelions are seeded in the fall and harvested in early spring before their yellow flower appears.
Though often regarded as a garden nuisance, there’s much to celebrate with these native greens. Prized since ancient times for their medicinal properties, dandelions–both spring and summer types–are exceptionally rich in vitamins, minerals and other nutrients. While often categorized as a weed, the dandelion is actually a vegetable.
Named from the French “dent de lion” (lion’s tooth), referring to the serrated leaves, wild dandelions have a very short season, only about a month. The key is to pick dandelion greens before the yellow flower appears; when the dandelion starts to flower, they’re usually too bitter to eat—unless you’re a true Italian and used to the bitterness! The younger greens are the most tender.
In season from March to December, dandelion greens can be treated just like spinach in most dishes. The youngest, most tender spring dandelions are ideal in salads or in stuffing for pasta and even sausage, while old-school Italians may like to eat them on their own.
Garlic and olive oil work wonderfully to mellow the bitterness. Young leaves (cultivated or wild) are excellent raw in salads, where they add a refreshingly tangy, slightly bitter flavor. Although their leaves aren’t as peppery, dandelion greens can be substituted for arugula in many salads. Cultivated varieties last all summer into fall and pack all the nutritional punch of wild dandelions without some of the bitterness.
My family and I enjoy eating arugula and wild dandelion greens as a tribute to my late father, an Italian immigrant, and his entire generation. Hope you enjoy my wife, Bette’s, famous salad and a nostalgic nod to simpler times!
Bette’s Best Arugula and Dandelion Salad
- 1 bunch dandelion greens, rinsed and drained
- 1 bunch arugula, rinsed and drained
- ½ onion, thinly sliced
- ¼ cup pine nuts, toasted
- 6-8 cherry or grape tomatoes, cut in halves or quarters
- ¼ cup olive oil
- 2 tablespoons vinegar
- 1 teaspoon lemon juice
- 1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
- Salt and pepper to taste
Place dandelion greens, arugula, onion, tomatoes, and pine nuts in a large bowl and set aside. In a small bowl, mix dressing ingredients together and pour over salad greens. Toss until well coated and serve.
About “Produce Pete” Napolitano
With over 65 years of experience in the produce industry, New Jersey’s own “Produce Pete” Napolitano is a renowned fruit and vegetable expert, author, and tv personality who’s appeared on a highly-popular segment on NBC’s Weekend Today in New York broadcast every Saturday mornings for over 28 years. For more information, visit producepete.com.
About Susan Bloom
A regular contributor to New Jersey Monthly and a variety of other well-known local and national publications, Susan Bloom is an award-winning New Jersey-based freelance writer who covers topics ranging from health and lifestyle to business, food, and more. She’s collaborated with Produce Pete on a broad range of articles for over a decade.