When I was a kid, there was a stream behind a neighbor's house around the corner. It made a path through their backyard and must have come from a well or spring, although I never knew exactly where it started or ended. The water was ice cold, even in the middle of the summer, and it ran over moss-covered rocks. It was a place we liked to go on a hot day when we were thirsty from running and playing. We could drink the water and not be afraid of it, and pull up a handful or two of wild watercress and chew on the cool, peppery leaves. Unfortunately, this isn't a scene you're likely to discover in you neighborhood anymore, and eating wild cress isn't something I'd recommend either, unless you're sure the water hasn't been polluted by people or animals.
Watercress is a creeping plant with a long stem that branches out into clusters of small, rounded, dark green leaves that have a fresh, peppery taste. It originated in the Mediterranean area and was brought to North America by the early settlers. Watercress was once thought to be a cure for madness; the Greeks thought it improved mental abilities.
Because it's perishable, you'll usually find watercress tied into bunches and displayed upside down in ice or ice water. Properly called nasturtiu, watercress is a crucifer that's particularly high in vitamin C. Not only does it make a great salad; it's also delicious made into soup or chopped into cream cheese.
Year round, but most plentiful in the spring and summer.
Watercress should be crisp and bright green, with no wilting or yellowing.
Because watercress is fragile, it's best to buy and use it the same day. If you need to store it, undo the bunch, wash in very cold water, and spin in a salad spinner or pat dry. Enclose in a plastic bag, store in the refrigerator, and it will last a few days.
The entire plant, including the roots, is edible, although in the summertime the stems start to get thick and tough.
To use the leaves, wash, discard the base stems, and cut into bite-sized pieces. Watercress is excellent in salads and on sandwiches--try it on a cheese and tomato sandwich. It makes an excellent cream soup that tastes something like leek soup. Mince and add it to sour cream or a soft cheese for dips. It can be added to stir-fries at the last minute, but be careful not to overcook. Watercress is also very attractive as an edible garnish.
For an especially good salad, cut up watercress, a little endive, and a ripe avocado. Add a dressing of olive oil, lemon juice, a touch of Dijon mustard, a little garlic, and salt and freshly ground pepper to taste.
For more information on watercress, log on to www.watercress.com
Other recipes from Produce Pete.