There is near-frantic pleasure in eating watercress at this time of year - it's green! It's fresh! It's not stew! Shoppers snap it up from vendors at the (newly reopened) outdoor Dane County Farmers' Market or find plump bunches in the produce sections of local grocery stores. Foragers cut fistfuls from the surface of small streams and coldwater springs. And people looking to add a little spice to their life include it in salads, soups, stir-fries and more.
Watercress' peppery flavor ranges from slightly feisty to all-out hot, depending on how cool or warm the weather, how young the plant, and whether it is cultivated or wild-gathered. The latter, typically the sharper of the two, should be collected from unpolluted sources-look for growth at the mouth of a spring and avoid stagnant pools and streams that lie near cow pastures or chemically fertilized fields. (And bring a field guide if you've never gathered it before.)
Wherever harvested, foraged watercress requires thorough washing in cold water, to remove the mud that clings to it. (If you have doubts about the cleanliness of its source, you can also soak it with water that contains purifying tablets). Purchased watercress typically looks cleaner, but still needs rinsing or a brief soak. Wild or domesticated, watercress' delicate leaves and stems won't keep long, but if you place it root ends down in a glass of water and cover the greens with a plastic bag, it will remain lively for two or three days. Mushy roots and yellowing leaves are signs of watercress beyond its prime.
A nutritious ancient brassica native from Central Asia to Europe, watercress is an invasive but welcome species found throughout the Great Lakes region. Its old-fashioned, teatime reputation (think watercress sandwiches) has given way to a new, eat-local prestige. Classics like puree of watercress soup and wilted watercress with hot bacon dressing are still popular, but cooks today are highlighting the spunky green in dishes like watercress tabbouleh, watercress-stuffed spring rolls and watercress salad with grilled hanger steak.
And never fear; as far as I know, no one is serving up watercress stew.
Watercress Salad with Grilled Hanger Steak
Makes 6 servings
- 1/2 cup soy sauce
- 1/4 cup orange juice
- 2 tablespoons dark sesame oil
- 4-5 green onions, thinly sliced
- 1 tablespoon minced garlic or 3 tablespoons finely chopped green garlic
- 2 tablespoons honey
- 2-pound hanger steak, trimmed
- 6-8 cups watercress leaves
- 1 tablespoon sesame seeds
Prepare coals on an outdoor grill. Remove meat from marinade and pat it dry. Grill to rare or medium-rare, about 7-8 minutes per side. Let stand 5-10 minutes before slicing steak. Meanwhile, bring the marinade to a simmer and cook it gently 2-3 minutes. Slice meat across the grain, and not too thinly. Divide watercress onto plates and arrange steak slices over it. Drizzle with a little of the heated marinade, sprinkle on the sesame seeds and serve immediately.
Originally published in Isthmus under the headline, "Wild for Watercress."