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An Italian green on the Outer Cape

Elspeth Hay

Almost two decades ago, farmer Stephanie Rein of Truro planted something new.

"It’s called rustica, or some people call it rocket. It’s an heirloom variety of arugula. The seed packet that I have came 18 years ago, one package of seed, my friend Genevieve went to Italy, and she brought me home one package."

Eighteen years later, Stephanie has never had to plant rustica again. It’s everywhere on her farm — and in fact, several years ago, she gave me a few plants of rustica to put in my garden, and now it’s everywhere at my house too. Luckily, the greens are tasty.

"It has a cult following," she says.

"I have customers who are adamant about having it and what’s great is it is I think more so than arugula it has this incredibly long shelf life. If you trim it and chill it and treat it properly like two weeks, or maybe more. It blows lettuce out and spinach and all of it, it’s the sturdiest."

It’s so beautiful and so tasty. She described the flavor to me.

"It’s like arugula on steroids honestly, it’s a firmer, more sturdy leaf, and it’s more razor-y, the leaf margin is really jagged as opposed to a classic arugula is more lobed. And it’s so much spicier."

To me, rustica tastes like arugula with more pizzaz. It’s not overly spicy in the intense way some mustards or watercress leaves are, but it’s kind of beefier and it has just enough zing to make my taste buds light up.

"I eat it every day, I think it’s good for my constitution, it’s what keeps me feisty," says Stephanie.

She eats it wilted on an egg sandwich in the morning, then if she has a sandwich for lunch it’s her lettuce.

"I grow a lot of lettuce but I don’t really eat that much lettuce, it just doesn’t have as much oompf, and then we eat it in a salad. I often eat it three meals a day. Definitely one, is like, I have to get it in. Because then winter, you know in the fall, by September you’re really it’s hard to harvest."

The thing about rustica is that while it’s incredibly easy to grow, it takes some work to keep it productive and on the table.

"In the spring it’s much easier to harvest, and then as time goes on it starts to flower and you have to really cut the flowers off because the plant wants to go to flower, make seed, and then it’s done with its party, it’s lived its life cycle. So much like a basil or something, you’re cutting off the flowers to make the foliage grow, you’re tricking the plant. So it grows profusely but you have to maintain it."

Elspeth Hay

Mostly, this means you have to keep cutting the greens — even when you don’t necessarily need them — but remember it has a long shelf life in the fridge. And the reward is delicious, perennial rustica that grows in just about any soil, any place.

"It’ll take water, it won’t take water, it likes sun, it likes shade, it’s tenacious to say the least," says Stephanie.

I asked how many people she's introduced it to. I’ve given it to a few people. Stephanie gave it to me. It’s got to be pretty widespread on Cape Cod by this point.

"Yeah and you know what’s crazy is — and I’m not saying eat this because it may really need some cleaning. But if you walk Commercial Street in Provincetown it is growing and I don’t know where it came from! Maybe it was airborne from my farm or I don’t know but it is growing along Commercial Street. Again, don’t just eat that off the street. But ah, it’s amazing it’s sort of like it has a will, and it finds the way."

Rustica Salad

Think of this as a template, and vary as desired. The chew of the dates pairs beautifully with the creamy cheese and sharp, full bodied greens. And please note—balsamic glaze is not the same as balsamic vinegar. It’s a reduced version, thick and sweet like a syrup but with the same characteristic tang.

1/2 pound Rustica greens

A handful of whole pitted dates, cut into thin rings

2-3 ounces Saint Andre or similar soft cheese, cut into bite size pieces

Olive oil

Balsamic glaze

Sea salt

Arrange greens in a salad bowl. Sprinkle with dates and cheese; drizzle with olive oil and balsamic glaze; season with salt to taste. Toss well and serve at once!

An avid locavore, Elspeth lives in Wellfleet and writes a blog about food. Elspeth is constantly exploring the Cape, Islands, and South Coast and all our farmer's markets to find out what's good, what's growing and what to do with it. Her Local Food Report airs Thursdays at 8:30 on Morning Edition and 5:45pm on All Things Considered, as well as Saturday mornings at 9:30.