Watercress

Updated: Jul 21, 2021


"Once you have become addicted to the peppery hit watercress provides, you'll wonder how you ever lived without it."

Maggie Beer


I have to use some watercress that I bought last week - well it was a bargain - reduced in price but still looking good - and it still is but it won't be for much longer. I too am a sucker for bargains. And I do love watercress.


However, my knowledge of interesting things to do with watercress is a bit limited, so I thought i would look into it.


As one writer noted it is not as well-known and ubiquitous as rocket which is also peppery and this particular writer wondered why, because watercress is actually better in so many ways. And she is not alone in this.


"It seems such a shame that as more and more “exotic” leaves have taken over our tea tables, that watercress has been reduced to a sad and soggy garnish found on the edge of a plate, beloved of steak and burger bars, what a sad demise for such a wonderful ingredient." Lavender and Lovage


Healthwise, in spite of the weird and wonderful things it has been touted for in the past - baldness, intelligence, an aphrodisiac, it is in fact rich in vitamins A and K and, according to Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall:


"it contains more vitamin C than oranges, more calcium than milk and more iron than spinach."


And also apparently, more folate than bananas. And moreover it has that wonderful peppery taste. I remember it with fondness from my youth - I think, mostly in sandwiches - the quintessential British thing, almost as British as cucumber sandwiches, with which, incidentally, it pairs well.


"nothing can challenge the combination of a good bread, salty butter and peppery crisp watercress." Jane Grigson

And whilst we are on the topic of sandwiches let's mention Locket's Savoury - a kind of toastie. It's called Locket's Savoury after the name of the restaurant which served it near the Houses of Parliament. I'm not sure when. You'd have to like Stilton cheese though. It's pretty simple, Toast and butter your bread, put in a heatproof dish, top with watercress, thinly sliced pears and Stilton, and then grill until bubbly.



Watercress grows wild on the banks of streams and in the water too. It is a semi-aquatic plant. In England the centre is Hampshire where underground spring water feed the now, hydroponically grown plant. There is even an annual festival in the village of Alresford, including a soup competition and a whole heap of other stuff. But don't be tempted to forage for wild watercress, because it is potentially extremely dangerous, through its harbouring of the liver fluke - a parasite that will burrow deep into your body. At university I did a term on parasites for my subsidiary subject Biology. I think it was my lecturer's speciality. Anyway they were all totally repulsive and dangerous and it made me cringe at the word whenever it is mentioned. So no foraging for watercress for me. The parasite comes from the manure from the cattle who may be feeding near the stream. It is tiny and undetectable, so do not be tempted by its abundance. Either grow your own in a pond or buy it, like me, from your local supermarket. There is no danger of parasites with commercially grown watercress.


It used to be really seasonal - a springtime thing, but, of course, with the use of hydroponics it can be had all year round.


"After months of creamy, cloudy, comfort food, its peppery crunch and vibrant green juiciness make it one of the liveliest harbingers of spring." Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall


So what to do with it other than sandwiches - which could be a new thing for your kids or grandkids lunchboxes. Apparently children generally love it. I certainly did.


Well obviously salads - there are endless recipes out there for salads. It seems to be used a lot with oranges and pears, cucumber and smoked fish. Also:


"Watercress is a great foil to either very rich or quite bland flavours: try it with eggs, goat's cheese or ricotta." Maggie Beer


So just experiment, even if at first you only use it as a substitute for rocket. And whilst on rocket I did see one writer suggesting that it should not be used in conjunction with rocket or other peppery herbs, as they cancel each other out.


Soup - yes soup is the other major dish that watercress is famous for. I remember reading somewhere or other that the Queen's mother once described Robert Carrier's Watercress soup as 'un poème.' Take care though. Many cooks seem to think that the watercress should only be added near the end of cooking as its fresh taste and even the pepperiness disappear if cooked for too long. Hence it's major use in sandwiches and salads. But there are lots and lots of recipes for soup out there. Here are three: Watercress and pancetta soup - an unusual one this, as it is essentially a chick pea soup to which the watercress is added, as recommended, near the end; Luke Nguyen's Cream of watercress and Vietnamese mint soup adds a Vietnamese touch to the French soup, for it does seem to be the French who concentrate on the soup - a kind of Vichysoisse to which the watercress is added at the end and often served chilled. Then there's River Cottage's Chilled spiced watercress and yoghurt soup, which adds an Indian flavour to the genre.

These days though, it seems to me that one of the most popular uses of watercress is as a pesto, which, of course is then served with pasta, sometimes alone, sometimes with other things, such as smoked fish. I found Watercress, hemp, orange and blue cheese pesto from Tom Hunt of The Guardian; and also from The Guardian, Florence Knight's Tagliatelle, watercress and hazelnuts. And there are many, many more.


Jamie Oliver's Watercress dip here served with a selection of roasted and raw spring vegetables, is really taking the pesto theory in a slightly different direction, as are all the various watercress mayonnaises that you can find.


And the next step on from that is sauce - most usually for fish, but also perhaps for chicken:

"it makes a delicious sauce for fish: sauté a couple of shallots in butter until soft, add a splash of white wine and about 80ml of stock, and simmer for a couple of minutes. Pour in a good slug of cream, add a generous handful of chopped watercress and warm through. Either serve just as it is or purée it into a smooth sauce." Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall


That recipe is a good starting point for developing your own version. They tend to be creamy.


I suppose the next most interesting thing to do is a kind of quiche. Watercress and goat's cheese tart from Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall is an example, for which I have no picture and this recipe is interesting because he is one of those who says you should not cook watercress too much. However, if you cook it in a quiche then it is quite cooked. Worth a try though. Well perhaps not that one, as I'm not a huge fan of goat's cheese, but you could try it with a whole heap of other things.


So far, so not very adventurous in a way. So to end here are three that are a bit different, Watercress potatoes with smoked trout which is a kind of gratin and rather tempting; as is Delia's Watercress and Lancashire cheese bread; and finally just to be super trendy and stylish - Donna Hay's Couscous, watercress and salmon cakes with apple and watercress salad - two watercress dishes in one. Alas I could find no pictures for the potato dish.

There are lots of complicated things, and simple things too, that you can do with watercress but maybe the simplest, and maybe even the best is the one devised by the French chef, Taillevent back in the 14th century:


"Watercress, served alone to refresh the mouth" Just eat it raw and fresh.


Like one of those sorbets you might get served between courses in a fancy restaurant. A man ahead of his time obviously. And yes - there are recipes for watercress sorbet available on the net to choose from. This one is from a website called Watercress which I have only just found, and which is the website for a watercress company, maybe the biggest one, in Hampshire, England.

There is a recipe section with all sorts of things in it. I should browse, but it's late and you've probably had enough anyway. So I shall just leave you with one final quote and hopefully, a desire to rush out and buy some watercress, even if it's not in season and not really the time for salads. We might have a birthday picnic on Sunday with the family. Maybe I should make some sandwiches.


"It's a two-in-one vegetable: the leaves have the velvety floppiness of lamb's lettuce, while the stalks have the snap of beansprouts. To salads, a tangle of watercress lends a blast of deepest green taste and bouncy volume. It makes sandwiches (rare roast beef, egg mayonnaise) lively and fresh. Providing you have a blender, no soup is simpler than watercress." Joanna Blythman - The Guardian


POSTSCRIPT

I just had a quick look at the Watercress website and see I have wasted your time really. Dozens of different and very tempting recipes for things to do with watercress.

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