When I was in college in NC, I managed to talk an old farmer into renting me his family home on forty acres for $50 a month. He had since moved up in the world and retired to a mobile home. The farmhouse was rustic beyond my parent’s belief with no indoor plumbing, no insulation, a wood cookstove — well, you get the picture. Despite the lack of amenities, I was in heaven. I spent hours walking through the woods, finding little streams and searching for wild plants to eat and to use for dyes for my handspun yarn. Every so often my landlord would bring his mother out to visit her old homestead. She had a wealth of knowledge about every useful plant on the property. Over by the chicken coop was the pokeweed and out in the far field grew tiny wild strawberries. Elderberries lined the long gravel driveway, goldenrod and chicory grew along the road into town and in the spring, the woods were filled with trilliums, mayapples and bloodroot. There must not have been watercress growing by those streams because if it had been there, I surely would have found it.
Watercress is one of the oldest known leafy vegetables yet my only memory of it involves little tea sandwiches on white bread, crusts cut off, paired with cream cheese. It’s a peppery and tangy brassica — one of the main little-known ingredients in V-8 juice. It grows in clear, cool water about 2″ to 6″ deep. The trickling water must be neither stagnant nor moving too quickly. Commercially, hydroponic cultivation is the way to go. Claims as to its nutritional value range from fending off cancer to having a strengthening effect on the the thyroid gland. It’s loaded with iron, calcium, folic acid, and vitamins A & C.
Every so often, when the restaurants don’t get first dibs, bags of watercress are available at Foraged and Found at the University Farmers Market. If you see it, give it a try but just a warning — don’t cut in line, especially in front on me. A week or two ago when the very first asparagus was available at Alm Hill, I was waiting patiently with my eyes transfixed on a few bunches right at the front of the line. Someone from the end of the line walked around to the front, grabbed a bunch and went back to her place in line. I got pretty riled up but this is Seattle and we’re all supposed to be so polite. I didn’t say anything knowing that the first chance I got, I’d rant about it on the blog. In the end, it all worked out because they had more asparagus to put out by the time it was my turn. I’m just saying — mind your market manners, people.
Now that I have that off my chest, back to the watercress. I tried a couple recipes, both from Canal House Cooking. The first is a watercress soup, simple and filled with a foresty flavor that brought me back to my days of wandering through the woods and sitting by the streams. It also gave me an opportunity to make a batch of creme fraiche, which is so easy, yet I haven’t made it for a while.
2 bunches or one big bag of watercress
4-6 cups chicken stock, preferably homemade
2 T butter
1 T olive oil
1 large shallot, finely chopped
1 medium potato, peeled and diced
Salt & pepper
Remove the thick stems from the watercress and add them to the stock. Gently simmer in a medium pot for 15-20 minutes.
Melt the butter and oil in a second pot over medium-low heat. Add shallot and cook until soft. Add the potatoes to the pot.
Strain and discard the stems from the stock. Add stock to shallots & potatoes, cover and cook until potatoes are tender, about 15 minutes.
Finely chop watercress leaves and add to the stock. Simmer for just a moment or two, remove from the heat and season with salt & pepper.
Top with a big dollop of creme fraiche, butter or heavy cream.
In case you’ve forgotten how to make creme fraiche, here’s all there is to it.
Homemade Creme Fraiche
1 1/2 cups heavy cream
2-3 T buttermilk
Warm the cream and buttermilk in a small saucepan on the stove until it’s just warm to the touch.
Remove, pour into a bowl and cover with a tea towel.
Let it sit, undisturbed on the counter for at least 24 hours.
Once it’s nice and thick, cover and store in the fridge until you use it.
Here’s another way to use watercress inspired by Canal House Cooking. Be sure to use a mild blue cheese so you don’t over power the watercress flavor.
Watercress and Blue Cheese Spread
1 cup chopped watercress leaves
1/2 cup chopped chives
1/8 lb. crumbled blue cheese
2 T softened butter
Salt & pepper
Mash together watercress, chives, blue cheese and softened butter in a small bowl. Season with salt & pepper. Serve on crackers or crostini.
If you want a smoother spread, mix in a little of your creme fraiche or some mayo.
If you want, you can substitute arugula for watercress in either recipe. It’s similar but different.