Some of you might be quite familiar with this delicious spring vegetable. In the UK it is still common fare, although perhaps not quite as common now as it used to be. It is one of the few 'wild edibles' that can be found at supermarkets - though what you find there, nicely packaged derives from cultivated sources.
A couple of hundred years ago Watercress achieved regional fame, especially in the Southeast of the country where it was cultivated and sold by the cartload at local markets and all over London. Young boys would run around early in the morning to sell Watercress to the working population as a fresh ingredient for their lunchtime 'sarnis' and it was widely considered 'poor man's fare'. Today its status has changed considerably. It is not as common anymore, but often used as a decorative garnish at trendy restaurants. Ironically, that bit of decoration may well be the most nutritious item on the plate. Watercress is packed with vitamins and minerals and is one of the tastiest and healthiest spring greens available. In the old days it often featured as an important ingredient in spring-cleansing diets. Watercress detoxifies the system and gives it the right nutrients to kick-start a sluggish metabolism that might be dragging after the sedentary winter months. Watercress is rich in vitamin C, A and K as well as some B vitamins, (Riboflavin, B 6, Thiamine, Pantothenic acid, potassium, manganese and calcium. It is also rich in protein. In the days when vitamin C rich tropical fruits were not so easy to get, Watercress was one of the major sources of this important vitamin. (also known as scurvy grass)
But unfortunately Watercress has a very short shelf-life, which makes it a logistic nightmare and thus it cannot always be found on supermarket shelves. Luckily it does grow freely in streams and moving waters throughout Europe and in North America, where it was introduced. In fact there it has taken so well to local environmental conditions that it is sometimes considered an invasive, especially in the Great Lakes region. There are few plants that actively seek out moving water, so from that perspective it is relatively easily identified. The leaves are dark green and elongated with a rounded tip. The margins curl inward and are slightly wavy. The flowers are of the typical crucifer appearance, with four petals and growing in clusters. When rubbed, the plant exudes a distinctive mustardy smell. It may be confused with another very similar looking species, known as Cardamine or Bitter Cress (Cardamine amara), which occurs in the same habitats. This is also a member of the Brassica family and is distinguished only by the fact that its anthers are purple (Watercress' is yellow) and that its stems are not hollow as are those of Watercress. Luckily mistaking these two species has no fatal consequence. Bitter Cress has a more bitter taste, but otherwise you will notice no ill effect.
Watercress should be consumed quickly after picking as it deteriorates rapidly. It can be dried, but that is not recommended as that will destroy its nutritional value. Watercress is delicious in salads or as a green on sandwiches, but also makes an excellent pot herb. Potato and Watercress soups are very popular and exceedingly tasty. Watercress is also excellent in combination with eggs, in an omelette for example, but should be added at the last minute to avoid losing the goodness and all the crunchiness.
Recent research has shown watercress to be effective as an anti-cancer agent, specifically with regard to aiding the elimination of lung cancer causing substances in smokers. (Compounds in broccoli, cauliflower, and watercress block lung cancer progression. (04/03/09 13:30:17))
However, despite its delicious flavour and nutritional superpowers I have to add two words of warning.
Water plants are particularly susceptible to environmental pollution, such as run off from fields. This is not just a problem with regard to chemical pollution, but also pollutants deriving from the faeces of life stock such as sheep or cattle, particularly parasites that may be transmitted that way, such as liver flukes or certain worms. Thus, always be sure that your picking grounds are clean and not likely to be polluted from industry or agriculture. And make sure you wash your fresh greens thoroughly. This is common sense and applies to all foraged plant materials. If you are not entirely sure, it is worth getting an annual blood test for liver flukes and Echinococcus worm infestation. These parasites are relatively harmless to their normal hosts, but can be fatal if they get into the human system. Cooking tends to kill them, but watercress is often consumed raw, which poses an extra risk.
Watercress Soup and Watercress Salad are everybody's favourites. How elaborate you want to get with these is up to you. The basic concept stays the same.
In a large skillet combine olive oil and butter and saute the onion. Add the watercress, stir until wilted. Add the vegetable stock and simmer for a few minutes.Take the soup off the heat, whizz with a blender till smooth. Keep warm but not boiling
In a frying pan heat some oil and roast the sliced garlic and mushrooms.
Add roasted garlic mushrooms and a big dollop of double creme or creme fresh. If you really want to go fancy you can sprinkle the composition with slithers of almonds or parmesan cheese.
Watercress is a wonderfull tangy and vitamin-loaded salad green. It combines especially well with something sweet and juice, like oranges or pears. Rasp a carrot and roast some pine kernels to blend in with it as well, and dress the whole thing in a sweet balsamic vinaigrette, made with balsamic vinegar, olive oil, orange juice, garlic, salt, and pepper.
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