Does it all go back to Hippocrates? Somehow all food history seems to point to the man. And watercress is one such arrow on the compass. Apparently it was his medicine of choice. It's often mine as well, since my English mother-in-law introduced me to it. She, too, represents a dot on the culinary history map, as we can trace some of the plant's most shining moments to her home country. Following the popularity of a food item across time and miles always illuminates for me a slice of life in a way that other historical facts cannot. The favor bestowed upon a food from one group, the way it then goes in and out of vogue give insight into not only the item on the plate but the eater and epoch in which it was consumed. My new found fondness for watercress: Is it simply from a chance introduction to the greens made at a family dinner, or do I represent the many eaters in America who are picking up on something that England has known for centuries - and Romans longer than that? That watercress is a delight. Only history will tell.
A Brief History
A staple in ancient times, watercress was enjoyed by the Romans to prevent baldness, the Pharohs to increase vigor, and in Crete the leafy greens were thought to be an aphrodisiac. Watercress was also used by Hippocrates to treat his patients. In fact, the old doc established his first hospital next to a running stream so that he could grow the healing plant in its waters. Though it is believed by many to be super-food packed with nutrition (see below), watercress is much more popular in England than it is in the United States. Although it frequently turns up in gourmet preparations, watercress, which is a commonly foraged food, was long considered a "poor man's" food.
Commercial production methods were developed by market gardeners outside London, England, in the 1800s. During this time, the advent of train travel allowed growers to ship their harvests directly into town. The demand for watercress continued through World War II when eaters were encouraged to grow and forage as much of their own food as possible. But after that, English eaters lost their taste for the green, perhaps because like the rutabaga, another staple food of wartime, it reminded them of sad days. Watercress was relegated, like parsley, to the category of garnish, a sprig served on the side of the plate for a splash of color and nothing more.
Its strong nutritive properties, however, have pulled watercress back into favor with eaters. It packs so much punch that it has been grown commercially in the states to be included in health drinks and supplements. This tiny but mighty sprig is being touted by some as "the new kale." The future looks bright for cress.
- There are three major groups of cress: watercress (Nasturtium officinale), garden cress (Lepidium sativum) and upland cress (Barbarea verna).
- The pungent, spicy and peppery taste of members of the mustard family (of which watercress is a member) is actually a defense mechanism of the plants that is activated by the mechanical action of chewing.
- Watercress delivers twice as much Vitamin C as an orange.
- Napoleon couldn't get enough of the stuff.
Watercress grows, as its name indicates, in very watery conditions from late spring through early summer. It is found throughout the majority of the North American continent where it grows wild - many would say too wild - in running streams. Its aquatic nature makes watercress a favorite among hydroponic growers, where the plants thrive in these water-based growing conditions.
Watercress can be grown in the home garden or containers as long as it is provided with an ample amount of water. Home gardeners often take advantage of naturally damp areas, such as at the base of their hose spigot or around the base of a waterspout to plant their cress. The extra drips and rainfall that these areas receive give the plants the moisture they need and helps utilize the precious water that would otherwise be underutilized.
While wild watercress has a limited season, hydroponically grown plants can be cultivated year round.
In the United States, wild watercress is listed by 46 states as noxious and invasive. It grows so thickly and rapidly that it often chokes out native plants in the streams where it thrives.
Cultivated cress, however, is easy to grow and is not susceptible to many pests or diseases. The controlled conditions of watercress production and its lack of susceptibility to illness and infestation make it a popular crop to raise organically.
Watercress is a dark green, leafy succulent plant. It is part of the cruciferous family, also known as the mustard family, along with kale, broccoli, arugula and Brussels sprouts, and shares their peppery bite. When shopping for watercress, look for emerald green plants without a lot of yellowing. Mature plants go to flower, casting off four white petaled blooms. At this point, the greens are too mature to be palatable.
Nutrition and Effects on the Body
Watercress is the multi-vitamin you can eat with a fork. Two cups of watercress contain only seven calories but have 1.6 grams of protein, 212 percent of the RDA of Vitamin K, 48 percent of Vitamin C, 44 percent of Vitamin A, as well as calcium, manganese, potassium, Vitamin E, thiamin, riboflavin, vitamin B-6, magnesium and phosphorous.
What to Do with It and Cooking
Plants collected from the wild should be washed very carefully prior to consumption to avoid accidental ingestion of microscopic parasites, such as the protozoan Giardia, that may be present in untreated water.
Once clean, watercress is easy to toss into a salad or layer into a sandwich. Watercress is a natural match for rich dishes with a good bit of fat that takes the edge off the leaves' peppery flavor. Try swapping it for the "L" in your BLT, serving it alongside a nice piece of broiled wild salmon or, as I've paired it here, in classic English tea sandwiches.
Watercress is a delicate green that wilts readily. It is often sold with its roots intact to preserve as much moisture in the plant as possible. When bringing cress home, you can store it "potted" in a mug filled with an inch or so of water and draped with a reusable plastic bag or damp paper cloth.
English Tea Sandwiches
Each recipe makes 24 little bites
What better way to celebrate the Brit in watercress and the salad's Victorian heyday than with some olde fashioned tea sandwiches. Too frilly for you? Ok, you can serve them as cocktail nibbles. I'm offering up several varieties with a range of flavors and shapes. You can serve just one or stack them up (on footed platters, perhaps) to offer your guests a selection. The crusts are usually trimmed in proper English fashion but I say bugger that, it's wasteful.
Cucumber, Goat Cheese and Cress
These are really pretty served open-faced. You can use whatever variety of cucumber you have on hand but I find the delicate flavor and extra crunch of Persian cucumbers especially appealing here.
2 ounces of fresh goat cheese, softened
2 ounces of cream cheese, softened
6 slices of good quality bread: white, wheat or rye would all be good, or even baguette thinly sliced lengthwise
Salt and pepper
2 cucumbers, preferably Persian
1 cup of watercress, washed and spun dry
In a small bowl, use a fork to thoroughly combine the cheeses. Spread the bread slices evenly with the cheese mixture. Season with salt and pepper. Run a fork down the sides of the cucumbers, using the tines to scrape deep ridges in the skin (it will look pretty when you slice them). Thinly slice the cucumber crosswise (admire your decorative fork ridges) and arrange in slightly overlapping rows on the cheese-covered bread. Cut the slices on the diagonal twice, to make triangles. Arrange on your serving board and garnish with the watercress.
Curried Egg Salad and Cress
Egg salad loses its granny-made-me-eat-it status when it's spiced up like this. The curry and the cress match each other spice for spice.
6 hard boiled eggs, peeled
2 tablespoons good quality mayonnaise
1 tablespoon sour cream or yogurt
2 teaspoons curry powder
1 scallion, minced
Salt and pepper
12 thinly sliced slices of bread
2 cups watercress
Cut the eggs in half and use a spoon to scoop out the yolks into a medium bowl. Dice the whites and set aside. Add the mayonnaise, sour cream or yogurt and curry powder to the yolks and use a fork to blend until creamy. Stir in the scallions and diced egg whites and season with salt and pepper. Spread six of the slices with the egg mixture and top each with an even layer of watercress. Top with the remaining slices of bread. Cut the sandwiches in half and then in half again to make squares. Arrange on a serving platter.
A tiny bit of honey adds a nice contrast to the spicy watercress.
3 tablespoons of butter, softened
1 teaspoon of honey
A pinch of salt
12 slices of thinly sliced bread
2 cups of watercress
In a small bowl, use a fork to blend the butter, honey and a pinch of salt. Spread evenly over six of the bread slices. Add an even layer of watercress to top each slice. Cover with the remaining bread slices. Cut on the diagonal and then on the diagonal again to make triangles. Arrange on a serving platter.
Bacon, cress and tomato served on a slider roll. (Well, it's an American tea party.)
12 slider rolls
4 tablespoons good quality mayonnaise, or to taste
Salt and pepper
12 crispy slices of cooked bacon, halved
2 medium tomatoes, cut into twelve slices
3 cups of watercress
Spread the bottom of each of the slider rolls with a teaspoon of mayonnaise, or more if you like. Season with salt and pepper. Top with two halves of a bacon strip, a slice of tomato and a 1/4 cup of cress. Top with the top of the slider roll and arrange on your serving platter.