September Is the Best Time to Eat Peppery Arugula—Here’s How to Use It

Add these leafy greens to your early fall menu!

Arugula is like the best late-summer weekend: Simple, but with a kick. The finger-length leaves of this flavorful green add a powerful punch to your favorite salad bowl, pack on a ton of nutritional benefits, and are in season right now.

Arugula is popular in cultures around the world. The leafy tops are used in Mediterranean salads in Greece, while in northern India and neighboring countries, the seeds are pressed into taramira oil (also called jamba oil). The oil is used both for pickling foods and for bathing to alleviate dry skin, according to FoodPrint, a project led by GRACE Communications Foundation to increase public awareness of current food systems and advocate for sustainable alternatives. In America, the leafy greens are most often sold raw alongside other salad greens.

Ready to celebrate this bright, flavorful leafy green? Then it’s time to grab arugula from your local farmers’ market, likely your most sustainable option. Conventional supermarket arugula may have been farmed with heavy chemicals and shipped cross country; plus, to protect the delicate leaves, arugula is often sold in clamshell containers, which have a very high carbon footprint, according to FoodPrint.

We chatted with farm and nutrition experts for their go-to tips for making the most of the seasonal selection.

Taste test

Arugula is considered a “bitter green,” but the flavor itself isn’t really bitter at all. Greens in this family are often described as bright and sharp, and arugula in particular is known for its peppery notes. The leaves themselves are very delicate, and are similar to that of watercress, says Juliet Glass, Director of Communications at FRESHFARM, a non-profit that operates producer-only farmers’ markets in the Mid-Atlantic region. She notes that if the flavor is a little too strong for you, arugula mixes well with sweeter lettuces, like Boston, bibb, or romaine.

The nutritionist says…

While arugula doesn’t have quite as many nutrients as superstars kale and spinach, it’s still an excellent choice for a well-balanced diet and can add some variety to your veggie mix, says Jessica Levinson, M.S., R.D.N., C.D.N., author of the 52-Week Meal Planner: The Complete Guide to Planning Menus, Groceries, Recipes, and More.

To count arugula toward your daily servings of vegetables based on the Dietary Guidelines For Americans, Levinson notes that it takes two cups of any leafy green, like arugula, to make up one serving.

Arugula is a good source of some important vitamins. Just two cups of arugula has almost 50% of the recommended daily value for vitamin K, which is crucial for bone health and blood clotting; research has also found it can lower your risk for cardiovascular disease, says Levinson. Additionally, a serving has about 20% of the daily value of vitamin A, which is crucial for vision and plays a role in immune function, reproduction, and cellular communication, she adds.

Levinson says it’s best to eat a mix of raw and cooked arugula in your diet. Cooking arugula can sometimes lead to a loss of nutrients, like vitamin C (arugula has about six milligrams), but it can increase absorption of other nutrients, like vitamin A. And for an extra kick of nutrition, drizzle a touch of heart-healthy fat (like olive oil) over your arugula, which research has shown may increase the absorption of nutrients, she explains.

When to stock up

Though you can get arugula year-round at a grocery store, it typically lasts the longest and tastes the best when grown in season during the spring and fall, Glass explains. This is because it’s picked at its peak freshness and doesn’t need to be shipped far before it hits your kitchen table.

The perfect timing varies based on where you live in the country, but Glass loves to grab arugula in the early fall for the best crop in most of the United States. You can use this seasonal food guide to determine if arugula is in season near you. However, in some parts of the United States, like Southern California and Florida, it’s rare for farmers to grow arugula. That’s because without seasonal temperature changes, arugula doesn’t have optimal temperatures to grow.

Out of season, many farmers will use high tunnels (a tunnel-like structure covering crops on a field) or a greenhouse to continue to grow the crop and create optimal growing conditions, Glass adds. You can always ask your farmer when the next arugula harvest is if you don’t see it at your local market.

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How to pick the perfect arugula bunch

It’s best to determine the freshness of arugula based on how it looks. “You want to look for bright green, perky leaves that are all the same color. You want to avoid any older, yellow, or wilted leaves that are really soggy,” Glass says. Arugula isn’t a particularly fragrant green, like basil, so it shouldn’t give off any sort of scent.

Additionally, you may find some soil or insect damage, like holes at the top of the leaves, especially when shopping at a farmers’ market, but this is an indication the farmer didn’t use any pesticides or sprays and is totally acceptable to eat.

You’ll find arugula on supermarket shelves pre-washed in a clamshell container, but at a farmers’ market it’s often sold in bunches or as harvested leaves in bags. Though there are different varieties of arugula, it’s unlikely you’ll see it labeled as anything but arugula.

What to do with your haul

Resist the urge to wash your arugula as soon as you get home; instead, thoroughly clean and dry the greens right before you plan to eat them. “The key for washing and storing arugula, and for all leafy greens for that matter, is to just wash only what you are going to eat right before you use it because if you wash it all, it won’t last as long,” Glass says. This is because washing produce before storing may encourage bacterial growth and spoilage, so the dryer it is, the better, according to Colorado State University.

Store arugula wrapped in a dish towel or paper towels in an airtight container in the fridge until you’re ready to eat it. The greens will last at least a week this way, Glass says. Once it’s meal time, snip off any woody ends and wash and dry in a salad spinner.

Now that you’re ready to enjoy the punchy flavor of arugula, give it a try in these delicious ways:

  • As a salad. Add sliced oranges, fennel, red onion, and parmesan to a bowl of arugula for a delicious, seasonal salad, Levison says.
  • As a base to your meal.Lay a bed of arugula, dress it with olive oil, lemon juice, salt, and pepper, and top it with grilled veggies and protein. The warmth will wilt the arugula just a little and the juices will dress the whole plate, Glass says.
  • On a sandwich or grain bowl. Replace any other green in a sandwich or grain bowl with the peppery leaves, Levinson says.
  • In a sauce. Arugula is delicious in pesto in addition to, or in place of, basil, Glass suggests.
  • Over a pizza. We’re sharing our go-to superstar recipe below.

    Superstar recipe

    CHRISTOPHER TESTANI

    Mushroom and Arugula Salad Pizza

    Arugula salad lightly dressed in olive oil, salt, and pepper with parmesan and scallions is delicious on its own, but toss it over a freshly baked pizza crust with mushrooms and you’ll get an undeniably delectable bite. The light, acidic salad cuts through the hearty pizza crust for a dinner dish the whole family will love.

    GET THE RECIPE

    Arielle Weg is the associate editor at Prevention and loves to share her favorite wellness and nutrition obsessions.

    This story originally appeared on: Prevention.com - Author:Arielle Weg