What’s in Season Now: Watercress

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March 26, 2010 at 7:39 am

Rob Gardner

We don’t find much in the way of Spring produce in the Chicago area.  Such so-called Spring crops like peas won’t hit our shores until the near end of Spring, like June.  The newest new potatoes done come around until the Local Calendar really says summer.  Even local asparagus is several weeks away.  There is, however, one crop already thriving in the grounds around us, watercress.

It’s called water–cress for a reason.  It sprouts up by all the creeks and ponds and  tiny rivers that help make the land around us so fertile.  It’s one of those plants getting signals from Mother Nature to spring up as soon as the days turn a bit longer, an edible daffodil if you may.  You can sometimes find watercress growing through melting snow.  She don’t mind.  Some area farmer’s grow watercress; perhaps to feed the needs of French bistros used to putting a sprig or two on every plate of roast chicken.  Still, there is much cress for the taking.  As I say, any farm with a little old body of water nearby (and most seem to have this), will likely find watercress for the taking.  The big problem for you local eaters, who will supply the Spring cress.

Seriously, that’s a problem.  While we have more than a few markets running this time of year, we do not have many farmers with a habit of picking off their wild cress.  Please, prove me wrong.  Show up at Green City or Logan Square or Portage Park this weekend and find some wild watercress.  If you do, great.  If you don’t challenge the farmer.  Why not make some money harvesting what God put at the back of your property.  Maybe with a little urging we can get some watercress out there.

Do we need watercress in our diets?  Do we need to eat it just because we can, because something grows when it is this cold.  To some that’s a good enough reason isn’t it, a little relief from those root crops.  I’d also tell you to eat watercress because it tastes so good.  Maybe a slightly acquired taste.  Wild watercress (especially) can be hot on the tongue, like dabbing some Chinese mustard.  There’s also a strong vegetal taste, the result of all that plant energy driving it forward so soon.  So, take advantage of its strength.  Those French knew something.  Its bite offers relief from heavy, plainly cooked meats.  It contrasts expertly against eggs, and an eggsalad sandwich on a really good whole grain bread, with a sprig of watercress is one food’s great marriages.  You can forgo cress as an accessory.  Make yourself a cress salad, but use an assertive dressing like a home-made green goddess.  I mean if you do get some watercress, get yourself some fresh eggs too.  You’ll need to make the egg salad, and you will need to whip up a batch of good mayo.

We may not have much truly in season yet.  We have watercress.  We have farm eggs.  We can eat local with great pleasure.  As long as we can find it.  (As noted the other day, this Local Family got its first of the year watercress at the farmer’s market in Madison.  It’s always a locavore pleasure to go there.)

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3 Comments

  1. Deb Hansen says:

    Simply Wisconsin started offering watercress last week to our Chicago customers, and will most likely have it until the beginning of May – can’t wait for local ramps!

  2. Rob,

    A perfect opportunity to make one of my favorite salads:

    Beet, Watercress & Fennel Salad with Creamy Pink Peppercorn Vinaigrette
    This is a beautiful salad that celebrates the colors of spring. It is best made with extremely fresh watercress as this green is highly perishable.

    For 6 servings

    1 teaspoon pink peppercorns
    2 teaspoons good white wine vinegar
    1 teaspoon good mayonnaise (I prefer Hellman’s)
    2 tablespoons grapeseed or canola oil
    Kosher salt to taste
    3 medium beets, greens removed
    1 bulb fennel
    1 bunch watercress
    Coarse sea salt, optional

    Crush the peppercorns by enclosing them in a paper towel and smashing with a flat metal round, such as the bottom of a metal measuring cup or a meat mallet. Combine the vinegar and peppercorns in a small bowl. Add the oil by droplets, stirring with a whisk to emulsify the mixture. Add mayonnaise and whisk until well combined. Add salt to taste.

    Preheat oven to 350° F. Wrap the beets in aluminum foil and roast on the oven’s center rack for 1 ½ hours or until tender. Rub off their skins and cut into quarters.

    Very thinly slice the fennel, use a mandoline if available. Soak in a bowl of ice water for at least 30 minutes. Remove the thicker stems of the watercress. Wash and dry.

    Arrange the watercress on a platter and place the fennel and the quartered beets on top. Dress with vinaigrette and garnish with coarse sea salt, if desired.

  3. Kennyz says:

    another “in season now” item is onion sprouts. At the GCM, Nichols had a wide variety of interesting ones to sample, from delicate and tender candy-onion sprouts to larger, more robust leek sprouts. I think they had 5 kinds of onion sprouts, and it was fun to sample each and note the subtle differences in flavor and texture.

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