A pungently-flavoured salad leaf native to the Mediterranean, Eruca sativa, belonging to the brassicaceae, or cabbage family. Various common names for rocket are the French roquette, the Italian rucola and the Sicilian arugula.
Rocket, often identified as a weed, earns its name due to the plants tendency to bolt and go to seed very rapidly during hot weather, sending up slender stems that can double the plant's size in a matter of days.
It is an annual herb growing to a height of 50 cm (22 In). It bears delicate, 4 petalled white to pale violet flowers and attractive dark green leaves growing up to 10 cm in length.
It is quite easy to grow from seed and yields a crop in 6-8 weeks in early spring to summer, but it is possible to grow year round if you live in a mild climate. Provide the plant with plenty of sun and a decent, regular drink. Just watch for the bolting seed stems, which should be pinched back if you intend to use the leaves for salad.
The flavour of rocket is very strong, with peppery, mustard overtones that are deliciously hot in the immature plant (meaning small leaves), but can be overwhelmingly strong in the fully mature plant. It finds itself particularly well-suited to other bold flavours, such as goat's cheese, anchovies and garlic.
I still remember my first introduction to rocket about fifteen years ago, when I first became interested in cooking. Back then, the salad leaf was still enjoying mysterious obscurity and was very difficult to find. I had to order my first bunch from a greengrocer a few days ahead, which most likely helped it along the way to becoming an instant addiction. The experience was a world away from the bland, watery iceberg lettuce that I had endured up to that point in my life. These days, rocket is available in suburban supermarkets, so I don't have to go too far to get a fix.
A sublimely-flavoured variation is Diplotaxis tenifolia, variously known as wild rocket, sand rocket and perennial wallrocket. It has relatively compact, slender leaves and a very strong, yet pleasant flavour. If you ever come across any on offer, snap it up as the rare treat it is.
Rocket can be served as is, or mixed with other salad leaves and simply coated with a dressing that should really include balsamic vinegar to help the strong flavours keep in harmonious balance. It is also well suited to being briefly cooked in other dishes such as risotto, pizza or frittata. Here is a couple of recipes to help your own addiction along.
Rocket and Parmesan salad
This simple pairing is so perfect, it has become the default house salad in many Sydney restaurants during the last few years. Serve it alongside semolina gnocchi and some eggplant salad and I could almost forget to eat meat for a day or two.
Trim the rocket of any coarse stems and discard any yellowing or wilted leaves. Give it a good tub in a sink full of cold water, drain and spin or gently pat dry. Place in a large bowl and add half the cheese and all the remaining ingredients. Toss together gently and thoroughly and pile attractively onto a serving plate. Scatter with the remaining cheese and serve forth.
Spaghettini with rocket, lemon and chilli
Dinner does not get any simpler than this, and rarely has so much flavour. Add some good crusty bread and a glass of achingly dry white wine and you will be impressing guests within twenty minutes. This dish can be made with any long slender pasta, like spaghetti, angel hair or linguini. For a special treat, try making your own pasta.
Cook the pasta according to the directions on the packet and err on the side of underdone. Add plenty of sea salt to the pasta cooking water, but no oil, which is a myth whose perpetrators should be viciously spanked.
Trim and wash the rocket as per the method from the previous recipe. Coarsely chop the rocket and set aside. Gently heat the oil in a heavy based frying or saute pan. Add the chilli and garlic and cook very gently for a few minutes. Drain the cooked pasta and do NOT rinse. Increase the heat in the frying pan and add the rocket. Toss pasta into the pan along with the lemon juice and seasonings, stir to combine. Serve immediately, passing the cheese separately.