Leafy greens have gotten an unfair shake in America. In a country with so many proud food traditions—from lobster rolls to smoked brisket to corn on the cob—you might think we'd have figured out some better things to do with a category of vegetable so varied in taste and appearance. But besides Caesar salad, spinach dip and slow-cooked collards, our food culture has generally failed in paying homage to what may be our most versatile produce.
The reasons for this betrayal are complicated, but I think can be boiled down to a simple fact: The cheapest and most widely available greens are pallid and flavorless varieties of lettuce. We hide them on burgers and deli sandwiches, and we slather them in creamy dressings. But it doesn't have to be this way. There's a world of greens available in Missoula, running the gamut of flavors and textures. From purple kale to rainbow chard, oakleaf lettuce to radicchio—if you are looking to spice up your obligatory helping of vegetables at dinner, greens are worth reconsidering. And arugula is a good place to begin.
Native to the Mediterranean, arugula is a diminutive green with a lot of flavor. It's a member of the Brassica genus, and like its relative mustard, it packs a punch. Mildly nutty, arugula is best known for its peppery taste, which ranges on the heat spectrum from subtle to a wasabi-style burn you feel in your sinuses. Tossed with a simple vinaigrette or added to a salad of chopped lettuce, it offers a little intrigue to the otherwise mundane.
But don't think of it only as a salad green—arugula is a multitasker. Also known as rocket, roquette and eruca, arugula is cultivated around the world not only as a component for salads but also as a culinary herb. Served on top of pizza or a piece of meat, cooked into a tomato sauce, folded into an omelet or blended into pesto, its uses are limited only by a willingness to try.
If arugula has a downside, though, it's availability. Though you can find it year-round at just about every grocery store in Missoula, local farmers grow the good stuff from May to October. Fortunately, western Montana is home to dozens of such farms, and few, if any, grow as much arugula as County Rail Farm in Dixon.
Tracy Potter-Fins and her partner, Margaret De Bona, began growing organic vegetables near the Jocko River in 2011. During their first season, they harvested about 200 pounds of arugula, but quickly realized the market had an appetite for more.
"Demand went up and we obliged," says Potter-Fins. "Now, in our sixth season, we harvest almost as much every week as we did that first year."
And while the farmers have harvested and packaged thousands of pounds over the years, Potter-Fins says they haven't tired of eating the pungent greens. They still skim some product from each harvest.
"We have a bag of it in our fridge and on our table at every meal. It goes in salad, under eggs, on top of pasta, blended into anything and munched throughout the day for a gentle kick ...," she says. "It's one of the many vegetables on the farm I'm constantly in awe ofit looks as gorgeous in the field as it does on the plate."
You can find County Rail Farm arugula at Missoula-area grocery stores. Or, better yet, meet the people who produce it by visiting their stand at the Clark Fork Market. They can help reinforce why leafy greens—and arugula in particular—deserve more respect.