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Rocket is easy to grow, hardy and a flavour bomb

The punchy flavour of rocket or arugula leaves pairs well with bland or sweet ingredients like eggs, corn and watermelon

(Left) Watermelon rocket salad; and rockets + greens chutney. (Photos by Nandita Iyer)

By Nandita Iyer

LAST PUBLISHED 13.04.2024  |  09:01 AM IST

I first tasted arugula or rocket on a trip to the UK in 2006 or so, and it was love at first bite. Like blue cheese, asafoetida and mustard oil, it had a unique punchy flavour that I love in my food, flavours that wake up your taste buds. I had never heard of it or eaten it in India and I was desperate to get my hands on this leafy green back home. The following year, a friend visiting India from abroad got me a packet of seeds for mixed salad greens, which I instantly sowed in a shallow tray in my balcony in Mumbai and lo and behold, I had my first harvest of arugula among other varieties of lettuce. The latter did not survive the harsh Mumbai sun, but arugula, being its hardy self, continued to thrive and give me a handful for salads every now and then.

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When I moved to Bengaluru in 2011, my first order of business was to dedicate a substantial area of my small terrace garden to growing my favourite edible greens—arugula. It took off with such gusto that I had huge bunches to deal with. From using a tiny handful, sparingly, I had a problem of plenty and to figure out more ways to use it in my cooking than just in salads.

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Fast forward to 2024, rocket or arugula is plentifully available at a tap on your phone screen, on most food and grocery platforms, including Amazon Fresh.

You will find two kinds of rocket leaves available—wild and regular. Wild rocket has delicate thin leaves while the regular one looks more like radish greens with broader leaves. What I recently found out is that both these leaves that go by the name “rocket", are in fact different species—the bigger leaf rocket (Eruca vesicaria), also called salad rocket, is a crucifer related to mustard family. It is a short season annual plant and in hot weather, bolts to give white flowers and seeds. The mature leaves have a stronger flavour than the younger tender leaves. Wild rocket (Diplotaxis tenuifolia) is also a crucifer. The tiny yellow flowers carry the distinct peppery flavour and can be used as edible flowers in garnishes and salads. Rocket belongs to the same family as kale but is entirely different in appearance and taste.

Rocket leaves are my favourite thing to grow and they never disappoint. It is quick to grow (you can start harvesting in four-six weeks), hardy against pests, perennial (grows year round) and packs a bomb when it comes to flavour. making it a top pick for any kitchen garden or window sill pot. It is quite expensive when you buy it and there’s nothing better than freshly plucked rocket in salads. The best part about growing rocket (especially the wild variety) is that after the first round of sowing seeds and harvesting, it is self-seeding. The lightweight seeds fall to the soil and the cycle continues.

Due to its sharp, pungent flavour, rocket pairs well with bland or sweet ingredients like eggs, potatoes, watermelon, mango, avocado, beet, corn, mushroom, pear, cucumber and roasted pumpkin or butternut squash. If you have a generous harvest or ended up ordering a big bag of rocket, pesto is the way to go. It is as tasty as basil pesto with 10 times the flavour. Don’t waste expensive pine nuts in this pesto as the flavour may end up being overshadowed by rocket’s intense flavour. Use toasted almonds or cashews or a mix of the two nuts instead. You can also use half rocket leaves and half basil if you are new to the pungency of rocket. The leaves also add much flavour as a pizza topping (add fresh leaves after the pizza is out of the oven), in a wrap or in a sandwich.

I hope this has convinced you to buy a bunch of rocket or get the seeds and grow your own greens and try these recipes.

Summer Saviour Watermelon Rocket Salad

Serves 2-4

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Ingredients

1 cup rocket leaves, washed and dried

2 cups diced watermelon

50g feta cheese

1 tbsp extra virgin olive oil

1-2 tsp balsamic vinegar

Half tsp rock salt

Quarter tsp chilli flakes

1 tsp chia or toasted flaxseeds (optional)

Rocket flowers or any edible flowers (optional)

Method

Scatter rocket leaves and diced watermelon on a platter.Top with crumbled feta. Drizzle extra virgin olive oil and balsamic vinegar all over the salad.

In a mortar pestle, crush together chilli flakes and rock salt to get chilli salt. Sprinkle the chilli salt, chia seeds and edible flowers as a garnish over the salad and chill for 1-2 hours before serving.

Notes: Lemon juice can be used instead of balsamic vinegar.

Use any cooked or canned beans in the salad.

Rocket + greens chutney

Makes 1 cup

Ingredients

1 cup rocket leaves

1 cup coriander leaves, packed

Handful of mint leaves

3-4 sprigs tender curry leaves

Handful of spinach leaves

4 cloves garlic

2-3 green chillies

2-3 tbsp roasted peanuts

Quarter tsp fennel seeds

1 tsp salt

1 tbsp lemon juice

Method

Wash all the greens well and drain excess water.

In a blender, combine the garlic, chillies, peanuts, fennel seeds and salt. Blend until coarsely crushed. Now add all the greens (coarsely chopped), salt and lemon juice and blend to get a smooth chutney— up to 3-4 tbsp of water.

How to use this chutney:

• As a sandwich spread

• On grilled paneer, chicken or fish

• Whisk in some extra virgin olive oil and use as a salad dressing

• Toss boiled potatoes or sweet potatoes in this chutney

• Mix into hung yogurt to get a green dip to go with veggie sticks or crackers

• Thin it with olive oil and drizzle over avocado toast.

Double Tested is a fortnightly column on vegetarian cooking, highlighting a single ingredient prepared two ways. Nandita Iyer’s latest book is The Great Indian Thali—Seasonal Vegetarian Wholesomeness (Roli Books). She posts @saffrontrail on Twitter and Instagram.

Also read | How to prep lettuce for that perfect salad