Rocket Science

Kristen Frederickson

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When I was growing up in the 1970s in Indiana, we ate a crunchy, white, watery iceberg salad almost every night as the first course of our supper.  We drenched it in every sort of bottled dressing you can imagine: the pink sweetness of Kraft Thousand Island, the glistening crimson of so-called “French” dressing.  Sometimes this dreadful dish was topped with a sprinkling of “Baco-bits,” little pellets of bacon-flavored mystery.

So I can hardly be blamed if as a young person with my first home, I stopped eating salad.  Then, in 1990, I moved to London and encountered “rocket,” tiny-leaved, bright green, not crunchy at all but with a delicious give to its leaves.  A salad of rocket was intensely peppery, actually spicy on your tongue.

I first tasted rocket at Formula Veneta, a little Italian restaurant in Hollywood Road, SW10, the chic enclave for American expatriates in London in the 1990s.  We had moved there as newlyweds and ate at Formula Veneta at least once a week during our carefree honeymoon days.  There was a favorite dish in which the pasta was flecked with little bite-sized pieces of the Austrian juniper-flavored smoked ham called speck, and with the delicate green leaves of rocket.  I loved those leaves because they were spicy and flavorful like all European lettuces, but without the bitterness of French frisee.

The Italians (who started it all) call rocket ruchetta, or rucola, the French lisp the tender syllables roquette.  The British, with their typical insistence on Anglicizing any French term, ask for rocket in their salads.  And the Americans call it arugula.

The original language is Latin and the original word is eruca sativa, meaning an unspecified vegetable in the brassicaceae (cruciform-leaf-shaped) family.

After a delirious three years of our self-indulgent life of rocket in London, we went home to New York where not another leaf of it passed my lips for 13 years.   I was forced, every once in awhile, to turn to raw spinach to get any green leaves in my life, although I have always been happier turning spinach into a creamy, garlicky, cheesy side dish.

How thrilled I was to return to London to live, in 2005, to find that the little rocket leaf had more authority than ever, replacing iceberg as the lettuce of choice on and beside most sandwiches, perching with insouciance atop a piece of grilled beef tenderloin, providing a cushion for a fillet of pan-roasted cod.  The rest of England had, it seemed, caught up with my obsession.

The late, great culinary mystery writer Virginia Rich once wrote, “Food fads are like jokes.  No one knows where they started, but all of a sudden everyone’s telling the same one.”  An ingredient or dish that no one’s ever heard of is suddenly in everyone’s shopping baskets and on everyone’s dinner tables.  Take balsamic vinegar, for example.  A few short decades ago no one outside Italy ever had the stuff in the kitchen cupboard; now you’re as likely to be served a little dish to dip your restaurant bread in as you are to get a pat of butter.  Wild rocket is certainly trendy, so much so that it is the ubiquitous side salad for an English sandwich, the obligatory garnish for a fish or meat dish.

I am devoted to rocket.  I’ll eat it tossed with black beans and minced red pepper (with a little balsamic vinegar!), or wilted under a grilled salmon fillet, sautéed slowly in olive oil with cannellini beans, garlic and rosemary, pureed into a soup with spinach and watercress. Its peppery attitude goes with virtually anything.

I spend summers on the East Coast of America, where “arugula” stands in for my beloved leaf.  Popular in Italy since Roman times (and long considered a lowly but edible weed to modern Italians) and common in England since the Queen Elizabeth they had before the current one, proper peppery rocket took a long time to hit the American palate.  As David Kamp entertainingly tells us in his history of American cuisine, The United States of Arugula, the emergence of arugula as a popular ingredient in everyday salads was the perfect example of America’s stepping onto the culinary stage, in the 1990s.

American arugula may share a Latin name, and some DNA, with English rocket, wild or cultivated, but not texture or taste.  Its leaves are large, with rounded edges, rather limp and almost tasteless.  English rocket is perky with pointed edges that stick out, and it stays crisp for a good few days in the fridge.  In fact, in England a packet of rocket is marked warningly “strong.”  And it is. This summer in Connecticut I noticed bags of something called “baby arugula,” but while it is closer to the shape and size of my English rocket, it has, again, almost no flavor.  Rocket/arugula feature prominently in an inventive leaf-mix called “mesclun”, now available everywhere on both sides of the pond.

Rocket is a super source of vitamins A and C, and folic acid.  It makes a perfect addition to a super-food salad of beetroot and goat’s cheese, and if you want to get even more virtuous, you can add avocado, hard-boiled egg, watercress and a creamy dressing.

My school-year English refrigerator always contains at least one bag of rocket (each English bag generally contains 75 grams, which amounts to about 2 loosely packed American cups), and I can find endless uses for it.  My favorite incarnation is a soup I invented in desperation when I had a great deal of sweetcorn to use up.  This soup is delicious enough to have got me a spot on a British telly cooking contest called Britain’s Best Dish, in which contenders appear in a cook-off of starters, main courses, or desserts.  My sweetcorn and rocket soup, topped with a good spoonful of fresh crabmeat, won the episode in which I appeared! (click on the main image above to see me in all my televised glory.)

This soup boasts a very appealing golden yellow color flecked with the bright green rocket, and tastes much creamier than the scant amount of cream actually in the soup would lead you to believe, and it’s unexpectedly SWEET.

Some food trends are much more than that: they are the emergence of a truly great ingredient from underserved obscurity.  That tiny leaf will cover the giant ball of iceberg as paper does rock, and win the game.

What’s your favorite way to enjoy the peppery green known as rocket?

Photo Credit: Kristen Frederickson