Rocket, roquette, ruchetta, rucola

Some foods are meant to slide smoothly over the tongue, others leap about yelling and dancing on their way down. For Italians, the lingering flavour of intense pepper and attractive bitterness that characterises wild rocket is a perfect example of the latter.

Common rocket (E. sativa) Image: Mike Ehrman|Dreamstime.com
Common rocket (E. sativa) Image: Mike Ehrman|Dreamstime.com

The common rocket (Eruca vesicaria sub-species E. sativa), also called rucola (Italian), roquette (French) or arugula, was launched on Australian tables in the early '90s and literally rocketed to the top of the salad list.

Unfortunately fame had its price. The horticultural methods that favour quantity over quality and hydroponic culture are to blame for much of the common rocket on the market today being sadly lacking in its characteristic piquant, mildly bitter flavour. Indeed, with some of the stuff around these days, you might as well be eating grass. Grow your own from seed. Cut off leaves from the base and it will keep producing new leaves and keep you well supplied with fresh salad leaves for a long time.

Ruchetta (Diplotaxis muralis or tenufolia) Image: Tatiana Belova|Dreamstime.com
Ruchetta (Diplotaxis muralis or tenufolia) Image: Tatiana Belova|Dreamstime.com

The perennial wild rocket (Diplotaxis muralis or tenufolia) packs the equivalent punch of a bowlful of rucola in each of its narrow lanceolate leaves. Known as ruchetta in Italian, it is an entirely different plant from rucola, as its botanical name indicates. However, it is often mistaken for a feral version of the cultivated rucola, as reflected in it being listed as E. selvatica in many seed catalogues and other writings on the subject. No botanical reference lists such a species.

In Italy ruchetta is as widely eaten as rucola but due to its intensity of flavour, it is treated more as an aromatic herb than a vegetable. The leaves from four or five branches of its woody stems are sufficient to spark up a mixed salad. Excellent with tomatoes, capsicum and radicchio, it is a component of misticanza, a salad common throughout central Italy of mixed wild herbs in season, including dandelion leaves, chicory, watercress and wild fennel. Misticanza is usually topped with a simple vinaigrette of oil, salt and vinegar but ruchetta's intensity allows also sit comfortably with the addition of strong-flavoured ingredients such as anchovies in its dressing.

Another classic combination is ruchetta tossed with slices of pear and shavings of Parmigiano-Reggiano. With multi-layers of bitter, peppery, sweet, salty flavours unfolding over your tastebuds, this salad is best eaten after - rather than alongside - the main course. It's a fabulous palate cleanser in preparation for the cheese and dessert courses.

Ruchetta is extremely easy to grow even in pots and definitely worth having on hand to enliven any salad. Seeds are readily available by mail order from good seed suppliers: make sure that they provide the botanical name - Diplotaxis tenuifolia - in their catalogue to ensure you are getting the right variety. Both fresh ruchetta and rucola are readily available at farmers' markets, greengrocers and even in supermarkets (although with the last, you could end up with the dumbed-down hydroponic stuff).

In Italy, rucola and ruchetta are not just used raw in salads but also cooked. Ruchetta makes a mind-blowing pesto to accompany meat. Cavatelli (or cavatieddi in dialect) with rucola and ruchetta is a classic Pugliese dish: simple ingredients delivering a total flavour blast. (Cavatelli looks like a miniature (about 2.5 cm long) very narrow split hot dog bun. It is generally readily available from Italian or other specialty food stores. If you can't find cavatelli, you can substitute pasta of similar shape such as the Sardinian malloredus.)

The other Pugliese pasta form, orecchiette, can also be used although traditional orecchiette-ruchetta combination also includes small cubes of potato cubes and excludes tomato sauce. The potato cubes go into the boiling water at the same time as the pasta, with the ruchetta added halfway through the pasta cooking time. The pasta is tossed with a very simple sauce of olive oil, in which some coarsely garlic has been gently sautéed. A few grinds of black pepper, a sprinkle of dried chilli flakes and salt to taste and it's time to eat!

Cavatieddi (aka Cavatelli) - a Pugliese pasta Image:  lorenzo_graph|Shutterstock.com
Cavatieddi (aka Cavatelli) - a Pugliese pasta Image: lorenzo_graph|Shutterstock.com

CAVATIEDDI CON LA RUCOLA

(Serves 4)

500g dried cavatelli pasta
2- 3 tbsp extra virgin olive oil, preferably a Pugliese oil
100g ruchetta
100g rucola
1 tbsp grated pecorino cheese

Tomato Sauce
7-8 very ripe tomatoes, chopped
1 onion, finely minced
1 clove garlic, finely minced
1 finger-length stick of celery, finely minced
3 - 4 basil leaves
leaves from a few sprigs of parsley
1 tbsp oil
salt and ground pepper to taste
flaked dried red peppers to taste

Combine sauce ingredients in a pot over medium heat. When the mixture comes to the boil, lower heat and simmer, stirring occasionally, until the sauce has the consistency of thin cream. Pass through a food mill and set aside. You will only need 4 to 5 tablespoons of sauce for the pasta. The rest can be bottled and used to accompany boiled meats, pasta or risotto.

Set a large pot of water with a heaped tablespoon of coarse sea salt over high heat. Add cavatelli as soon as the water starts to simmer. Cavatelli takes around 15 to 20 minutes to cook. After about 10 minutes, add ruchetta to the pot.

As soon as the pasta is al dente (about 15 to 20 minutes), drain and transfer both the pasta and ruchetta to a large serving dish. Add the rucola, 4 to 5 tablespoons of tomato sauce, olive oil and pecorino, and toss to combine well. Serve hot.

A variation of this classic is to toss the cooked cavatelli and ruchetta in olive oil in which garlic and anchovies have been gently sauteed.

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