Wild About Watercress
Goes Great with Anything
From the very beginning of my produce venture in the mid-1970s, I was interested in what customers were doing with the produce they purchased from me. Many conversations were conducted as they shopped and I worked; many recipes were written down and brought back to me on their next visit. Some were handed down through families; others were copied from books or magazines.
One recipe that still stands out to me because it is so tasty didn’t come from a customer, but was given to me by Graham Kerr (the Galloping Gourmet) during a pre-radio-interview conversation. It’s as simple as a peanut butter-and-jelly-sandwich: Take a good handful of watercress, mix it in a bowl with your favorite vinaigrette, stuff it into a warm tortilla, roll it up and eat it. It is fabulous.
Fresh watercress is an acquired taste. First-time buyers will either eagerly come back for more or never touch it again. It’s usually purchased by those who are already familiar with its distinctive characteristics. With sharp, peppery-flavored leaves and tender texture, watercress works well in a variety of preparations, from the sandwiches made famous by the Brits to soup, pesto, cheese platters, dips, a plethora of fine salads and even kimchee.
Watercress has been used for culinary and medicinal purposes for thousands of years. The Persians ate it with fresh baked bread; the Greeks and the Romans both used it as a blood cleanser, and the Chinese have used it as a remedy for liver ailments and coughs. Nutrionally, watercress is rich in vitamins C, B2, A, D and E, as well as calcium, potassium and iron. It is also a significant source of sulfur and chloride.
This succulent member of the mustard family grows wild along clear streams where there is plenty of limestone, bright sunlight and cool running water. (Upland cress, which can be used similarly but is often cooked like spinach, grows in soil rather than creeks.) For commercial cultivation, watercress is often grown hydroponically—in greenhouses or outdoors in flooded planting beds. Seeds are sown in moist soil ditches fertilized with compost; gravel or oyster shells (or a mixture of the two) are added to the bottom of the ditch so that the roots can take hold. As soon as the watercress starts to sprout, flowing water is introduced into the ditch. This method was developed in the 1800s in England, where street vendors sold watercress by the bunch in the spring. Today, the English celebrate National Watercress Week every May with a full-blown watercress festival.
This aquatic green became popular in America after European immigrants started planting it along creeks. Now it can be found in stores year-round, sold by the bunch with either the roots still attached or cut. Typically, the rooted watercress has been grown in greenhouses and has very thin, edible stems and is pale green in color. Outdoor-grown watercress is sold without the roots attached, has thicker, yet still very edible, stems, and boasts a deeper, more vibrant color. Some chefs prefer to use watercress that is vividly green; others opt for the thinner-stemmed variety: Both are absolutely delectable.
Watercress does not have an extended shelf life, so when shopping for it, look for fresh green leaves (yellowing and wilting are signs of age), and use it within a few days of purchase. To prolong its life, remove the rubber band, separate the bunch and wash it. After it has drained, put the loose cress in a Ziploc bag and suck out all the air with a straw. Keep the bag sealed and remove only the amount that you will be using at that moment, placing the bag back into the refrigerator instantly. This should keep your watercress fresh for up to three days.
I have collected lots of watercress recipes from my customers over the years. Many are handwritten on pieces of paper of various sizes; several are from folks who were already advanced in age when they shared their recipe and are no longer with us; plenty are from folks who are still shopping with me today. The recipes range from a simple platter of watercress and brie cheese to creamy watercress soup with nutmeg; chicken salad with watercress; and asparagus, strawberry and watercress salad. Watercress goes great with just about anything—seafood, vegetables, pork, beef, lamb—and is great in a turkey and avocado sandwich.
Just as I was back in the ’70s, I’m still interested in how my customers are preparing their fresh produce, and I always want to hear about watercress.
—By Dan Avakian