Illinois is home to a lot of acres of no-till corn and soybeans. No-till means the field is planted, herbicides are applied, and the crop is harvested without disturbing the soil. While this system preserves topsoil, over the years, it selects for species like henbit, purple dead nettle, and yellow rocket.
These are the plants that turn East Central Illinois fields into riots of purple and yellow in the spring. Once relegated to local ditches, these plants are now taking full advantage of no-till fields, especially yellow rocket.

Though rocket is a common vegetable in the U.K., what the Brits call rocket, we call arugula, and the French call roquette. Don't snicker too much, we are, after all, due south of Bourbonnais.

However, the yellow rocket or winter cress as Easterners call it, which dots our roadsides is Barbarea vulgaris, a biennial member of the mustard family. Experts differ on whether yellow rocket is weedy or invasive, but there is no debate on its edibility. Some herbalists go so far as to call it a spring tonic.

You can use yellow rocket much the same way you use young mustard greens and in many of the ways that the Brits use their beloved rocket. To harvest it, make sure that you are in an area that has not been sprayed with herbicides. Pick the leaves, and/or snap off four to six-inch sections of the flowering stocks. As with any wild plants, be sure to leave some of the flowers so you can harvest in future years.

For a preparation reminiscent of mustard greens, render a couple of pieces of chopped bacon in a tablespoon of oil. Remove bacon when crisp and remove all but 1 T of fat. Sauté greens in remaining fat, adding a chopped shallot or a bit of onion. Sprinkle with a pinch of sugar and a splash of cider vinegar. Add a few pepper flakes if desired.

Yellow rocket also is good with pasta as in this recipe by Jamie Oliver which combines wild greens with common pantry ingredients like anchovies, chili pepper, garlic, lemon zest, salt, and pepper.

You can do a simple sauté with a bunch of yellow rocket, a tablespoon of olive oil, and add a pinch of chili flakes at the end. This is good as a side or on top of toasted bread with goat cheese.

If you have a bit more time, you can use yellow rocket on pizza or flatbread dough. For the pizza in the photo, I baked the dough brushed with olive oil for five minutes at 450 degrees. I then added sauteed yellow rocket, chicken spinach sausage, and a couple of ramps (wild leeks), along with smoked cheese and baked it for 12 minutes until the cheese is melted and the browned. After pulling the pizza from the oven, I drizzled it with balsamic syrup before cutting it.

If you've never made your own pizza dough, here is a recipe for a whole wheat thin crust. You can find whole white wheat flour at Common Ground Food Coop in Urbana. Any leftover dough will keep for several days in a plastic bag in the fridge.

Whole White Wheat Pizza Dough

  • 1 c warm water (ideally 120 degrees F)
  • 3/ 4 t active dry yeast
  • 2 1/4 to 2 1/ 2 cups whole white wheat flour
  • 1 t salt
  • 2 T olive oil

In a large bowl, add yeast to water and let stand for 5 minutes. Add oil, 2 1/ 4 c flour, and salt. Mix until the dough comes away from the sides of the bowl. Turn out onto a floured counter and knead, adding flour 1/ 4 c at a time as needed. Knead for 10 to 15 minutes. See how here:

If your dough isn't behaving, you may just need to walk away for 5 or 10 minutes and allow the gluten to relax a bit. The dough will be easier to work with when you return.

When the dough is kneaded, rub it with olive oil and place it in a large bowl. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap or a damp kitchen towel and allow to rise in a warm spot until doubled in volume, about 40 to 60 minutes. Microwave ovens are great for proofing dough. When the dough has doubled, gently deflate it, and roll it into two balls. Let each rest covered with a damp dish towel for 15 minutes.

Preheat the oven to 450 degrees. Working one at a time, gently press or roll dough into a 12-inches round. Place the stretched dough on an oiled baking sheet or pizza pan. Brush the top of the dough with olive oil. Place on the lowest rack or on a pizza stone and bake for five to seven minutes to set the crust. Quickly add sauce, if using, and toppings (less is more for a crisp crust). Bake until the crust is crisp and nicely browned, around 13 to 18 minutes more. Remove from the oven.

Alternatively, you can make smaller pizzas and cook them on a hot grill with indirect heat.

This dough also makes great flat breads. Simply brush with olive oil and sprinkle with zaatar, a mixture of dried thyme, oregano, and other herbs with sesame seeds available at World Harvest in Champaign.

Photo of the Yellow Rocket lifted from The Google. Come find me, mutha.