When I first began preparing watercress salads, soups and sauces, the only kind available in markets was harvested from streams. It was dark green, with a rich, assertive peppery flavor, which made it a wonderful component in a mixed salad or a sandwich. One downside to this watercress was that, like many fresh herbs and lettuces, it was often bruised from handling, and had to be picked over thoroughly before washing. Well worth the effort, certainly, but a hassle nonetheless.
Because most Americans in those days were unfamiliar with this incredibly healthful lettuce--and probably because it didn't really travel well--watercress was sold only in upscale markets, and even then unreliably. This was nerve-wracking for a private chef, because very often you would have to present a menu first, and then go out and track down your ingredients. If a central item was unavailable or in too poor a condition to be useful, you then had to fudge the menu a bit, eliciting whiny remarks if your clients happened to be the picky, demanding sort. My job was to please, after all, and I took it seriously enough to stress over this sort of detail.
Now, I'm glad to say, hydroponic watercress has become widely available--which is a boon to all cooks. The product itself is much fresher, too (it comes with roots still embedded in "soil"). It's infinitely easier to clean, and the stems are quite tender, so they can be eaten along with the leaves. I have to admit, I still prefer the old "natural" watercress as far as flavor goes, but given the choice between hydroponic and none at all, well, there is no choice. Now that I know I can pick up a bunch, nicely sealed in a protective package, almost without fail at my my local supermarket, I eat watercress at least three times a week. This is a wonderful thing.
Watercress is high in iron, calcium, vitamins A and C, and folic acid. Like most greens, it's also packed with phytonutrients and antioxidants, putting it right up there with blueberries in the cancer-fighting, free radical-thrashing category. And it's just a delicious, gorgeous leafy thing to eat, period. So there.
Now that we have a virtually ready-to-eat source of watercress, the possibilities are wide open for quickly prepared salads. Here are two I made just recently:
1. Watercress and Beet Salad
How fast--and nutrient-dense--can a succulent salad get? All I did was cut the stems to roughly 2-inch lengths, put them in a bowl, add some grated beet and some thinly sliced celery, and then toss with some Balsamic Vinaigrette (which I just happened to have in the fridge). Bada-bing.
2. Watercress, Fennel and Apple Salad
winesap apples, and walnut halves.
I tossed the salad with a light, quick dressing made with apple cider vinegar, walnut oil, Dijon mustard, fennel pollen, Celtic salt, and freshly ground mixed black, white, green and pink peppercorns.
After mounding the salad on plates and placing a few of the walnuts strategically, I drizzled a little chive oil over and around it. I chose apple cider vinegar, walnut oil, and fennel pollen, to spark against the apples, walnuts, and fennel. It also made a mild, unobtrusive foil for the salad, enabling each ingredient to speak its own note clearly. The chive oil was an afterthought--a rash intrusion to bring in some wildness.
Easy. Tasty. Fun.