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ingredients and techniques

All About Watercress

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Having fresh greens in the crisper after a long winter is such a relief. Spring greens are a celebrated tonic, and while I don't know how much cleansing power they actually have, I do know that it feels mighty good to munch on a fresh salad in the springtime. The tastebuds fairly rejoice.

I'm a notorious kale-lover (I was recently asked to bring a salad to a dinner party, "but not a kale salad"), and Swiss chard is a close second. But some of my absolute favorite greens are the spicy ones--arugula is probably the best known of the spicy greens, but I want to give some love to the cresses.

Watercress, Nasturtium officinale, is part of the brassica family--a numerous and notorious clan of vegetables ranging from cabbages and broccoli to turnips and rutabaga. "Nasturtium" comes from the Latin words nasus tortus, which means "twisted nose." If you've ever eaten a particularly spicy bunch of watercress, you know exactly why it acquired this name.

Watercress hasn't always been so readily available. Due to its short shelf life, transporting watercress was impossible until relatively recently. It grows in slow-moving streams or, more commonly nowadays, hydroponic growing systems. It is prized for its beautiful leaves and peppery flavor.

Other varieties of cresses worth trying are spicy cress (a bit redundant as "cress" is from the germanic cresso, meaning "spicy") or curly cress. These cresses have fringed leaves (see second photo above). You may also encounter upland cress. I grew up hearing this referred to as "creasy greens," but essentially it is just a wild, land-growing variety of cress. You might find it growing in disturbed areas such as around gardens or fields or anywhere the soil has been tilled up. I've seen it growing pretty much anywhere in a temperate zone from North Carolina to Oregon, so it gets around.

When buying watercress, look for bright, perky leaves and crisp stems. Do not buy anything wilted or shabby-looking as watercress has a short shelf life to begin with. You want to buy the best watercress you can find. Remove twist ties or rubber bands, shake off any excess moisture, and store watercress in a zip-top bag with a paper towel in the bottom. Use within a few days of purchase.

We love watercress in salads, particularly in the company of avocado. But don't just relegate watercress to the salad bowl. It is lovely when very lightly sautéed, puréed in a soup, or made into tea sandwiches with salted butter. And don't forget pesto--you can turn pretty much anything green into pesto; one made with watercress would be nice and zippy.

There's not much to know about preparing watercress. Wash it well, as you should do with all greens. Sometimes, the thick stems need to be removed, as they can be tough and stringy, but usually you don't even need to go this far. 

Other articles you might enjoy: All About Ginger, About Apricots, About Wild Mushrooms

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