Watercress has a distinctive peppery yet refreshing taste and a bright green colour guaranteed to cheer up the most tired palate. It lends itself perfectly to salads, sandwiches, sauces and soups but more often than not it is served as a garnish and often ends up left on the side of the plate.
Watercress contains more vitamin C than oranges, more calcium than milk, more iron than spinach, and more folate than bananas. It has high levels of antioxidants and as such increases the ability of cells to resist the damage to their DNA, helping protect against cell changes that can lead to cancer.
In Victorian London watercress was the original street food. It arrived in Covent Garden by rail. Street sellers bunched it in the early morning in time for the “mechanic’s breakfast”, then swarmed onto the streets crying “Fresh wo-orter-creases”; customers ate it in the hand like an ice cream cone. It was eaten in sandwiches for breakfast and in poorer homes on its own; earning itself the name “poor man’s bread”. Today it is more likely to be sold in anonymous salad bags but when I see it for sale in bunches I find it totally irresistible and take a leaf out of the Victorian’s book and munch it then and there.
Of late, watercress’s more glamorous Italian cousin rocket has stolen its fire to become the staple of the contemporary kitchen as a cushion for meat and fish dishes, an overlay for cured meats and for peppering up salads. The two plants are equally versatile and both are deliciously peppery but watercress has yet another dimension. Watercress’s stalks are succulent and cool and the leaves are tender and add a velvety texture to soups and sauces.
Whiz watercress and add to quark or mayonnaise to make a dip cum sauce or egg Mayo; stir last minute into eggy or creamy pasta dishes, stews or casserole to add vigour and freshness or make a delicious reviving soup to invigorate your tired January senses.
Invigorating winter watercress soup serves 4
4 shallots, roughly chopped
2 garlic cloves, roughly chopped
½ nutmeg grated, plus extra to serve
100ml white wine
400 ml vegetable or chicken stock
250 g watercress leaves and stems
Salt and coarsely ground black pepper to taste
200 ml single cream or yoghurt or extra stock (optional)
Extra virgin olive oil for frying.
Heat enough olive oil to cover the base of a frying pan, add shallots, garlic and nutmeg and fry over low heat until the onions are soft and gently caramelised. Give this plenty of time for the flavours to intensify. Quickly add the watercress and wilt. Then add the wine and stock and bring to the boil. Transfer to a blender and whiz until smooth. Adjust consistency with cream, yogurt or stock. Taste for seasoning and add salt and black pepper to please. Serve reheated with a grating of nutmeg and hot crusty bread.