Watercress

Watercress is the new rocket. It was all over California on a recent visit. In New York it features on virtually every restaurant menu. Pick up an Australian food magazine and you’ll find the same – everyone going crazy for the peppery green leaves which are reported to be rich in beta-carotene, iron and vitamin C, while the compounds that give it the peppery bite have been shown in research to have a markedly antibiotic effect.

Not that this is a new discovery. In The Great Hunger, Cecil Woodham-Smith wrote of how the starving peasants fell on patches of watercress during the famine.

Watercress rings all sorts of bells for me, one of my earliest memories was of picking tender young watercress leaves with Mrs. Lalor in the Chapel Meadows near Cullohill, Co Laois. When we came home we made ‘salad’, using it instead of lettuce to accompany the predictable tomato, hard-boiled eggs and scallions liberally doused with salad cream – a flavour sensation I still love to this day.

When I arrived at Ballymaloe many years later, again we picked watercress and used it to make dainty little ‘butterfly sandwiches’ in thinly sliced white bread and robust watercress soups.

Watercress grows wild in rivers and streams all over the country, but it has to be emphasised that one needs to be extremely careful where one picks it. The water must be clean, unpolluted and constantly flowing. Check that there are no animals, particularly sheep, directly upstream, or its possible that it may harbour liver fluke. This is not to be taken lightly, it’s a very nasty and tenacious disease. However, there are some clean streams where one can pick beautiful fresh sprigs of watercress. 

For the uninitiated, watercress grows side by side with wild celery, a plant which looks remarkably similar. So how can one distinguish one from the other – the top leaf is always the biggest on watercress and the leaves get smaller as they go down along the stem. The leaf pattern is the opposite on wild celery. 

If a walk on the wild side is not your idea of fun, then you may want to buy a bunch in your local shop. It keeps well in a plastic bag in the fridge or in a bowl of cold water. 

Mustard and Sesame Seed Chicken Wings with Watercress

Serves 2-4
1 lb (450g) chicken wings-free-range and organic, if possible
Marinade:
2 dessertspoons Dijon mustard
2 teaspoons sugar
2 tablespoons sesame seeds
Sea salt 
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
Watercress
Lemon mayonnaise, optional

Preheat the oven to 200c/400f/gas6

Mix all the ingredients in a deep bowl. Toss in the chicken wings and mix well. Season with sea salt. Spread out on a baking tray and roast for 25-30 minutes turning occasionally. 

Serve as they are or on a bed of watercress or with tiny salad leaves and fresh herbs. Lemon mayonnaise makes a delicious sauce for dipping.

Watercress Soup

There are references to watercress in many early Irish manuscripts. It formed part of the diet of hermits and holy men who valued its special properties. Legend has it that it was watercress that enabled St. Brendan to live to the ripe old age of 180! In Birr Castle in Co. Offaly, Lord and Lady Rosse still serve soup of watercress gathered from around St. Brendan's well, just below the castle walls.
Serves 6-8

12 ozs (45g) butter
5 ozs (140g) peeled and chopped potatoes
4 ozs (110g) peeled and chopped onion
Salt and freshly ground pepper
1 pint (600ml) water or home-made chicken stock or vegetable stock
1 pint (600ml) creamy milk
8 ozs (225g) chopped watercress (remove the coarse stalks)

Melt the butter in heavy bottomed saucepan, when it foams, add the potatoes and onions and toss them until well coated. Sprinkle with salt and freshly ground pepper. Cover and sweat on a gentle heat for 10 minutes. Meanwhile prepare the watercress. When the vegetables are almost soft but not coloured add the stock and milk, bring to the boil and cook until the potatoes and onions are fully cooked. Add the watercress and boil with the lid off for 4-5 minutes approx. until the watercress is cooked. Do not overcook or the soup will lose its fresh green colour. Puree the soup in a liquidiser or food processor. Taste and correct seasoning.

Traditional salad with watercress and Shanagarry Cream Dressing

This simple old-fashioned salad which is the sort of thing you would have had for tea on a visit to your Granny on a Sunday evening - perhaps with a slice of meat left over from the Sunday joint, is one of my absolute favourites. 

It can be quite delicious when it's made with a crisp lettuce, good home-grown tomatoes and cucumbers, free-range eggs and home preserved beetroot. If on the other hand you make it with pale battery eggs, watery tomatoes, tired lettuce and cucumber - and worst of all- vinegary beetroot from a jar, you'll wonder why you bothered.

We serve this traditional salad in Ballymaloe as a starter, with an oldfashioned salad dressing which would have been popular before the days of mayonnaise. Our recipe came from Lydia Strangman, the last occupant of our house.
Serves 4

Fresh watercress or butterhead lettuce

2 hard-boiled eggs, preferably free-range, quartered
2-4 tomatoes, quartered
16 slices of cucumber
4 slices of home-made pickled beetroot (see below)
4 tiny scallions or spring onions
2-4 sliced radishes
Chopped parsley
Shanagarry Cream Dressing
2 hard-boiled eggs
1 level teasp. dry mustard
Pinch of salt
1 tablesp.(15g) dark soft brown sugar
1 tablesp. (15ml) brown malt vinegar
2-4 fl.ozs. (56-130ml) cream

Garnish 
Spring Onion
Watercress
Chopped parsley

Hard-boil the eggs for the salad and the dressing: bring a small saucepan of water to the boil, gently slide in the eggs, boil for 10 minutes (12 if they are very fresh), strain off the hot water and cover with cold water. Peel when cold.
Wash and dry the lettuce and scallions.

Next make the Dressing. Cut 2 eggs in half, sieve the yolks into a bowl, add the sugar, a pinch of salt and the mustard. Blend in the vinegar and cream. Chop the egg whites and add some to the sauce. Keep the rest to scatter over the salad. Cover the dressing until needed.

To assemble the salads: Arrange a few lettuce leaves on each of 4 plates. Scatter a few quartered tomatoes and 2 hard-boiled egg quarters, a few slices of cucumber and 1 radish or 2 slices of beetroot on each plate. Garnish with spring onion and watercress, scatter the remaining egg white (from the dressing) over the salad and some chopped parsley.

Put a tiny bowl of Shanagarry Cream Dressing in the centre of each plate and serve immediately while the salad is crisp and before the beetroot starts to run. Alternatively, the dressing may be served from one large bowl.

Pickled Beetroot

Leave 2 inch (5cm) of leaf stalks on top and the whole root on the beet. Hold it under a running tap and wash off the mud with the palms of your hands, so that you don't damage the skin; otherwise the beetroot will bleed during cooking. Cover with cold water and add a little salt and sugar. Cover the pot bring to the boil and simmer on top, or in an oven, for 1-2 hours depending on size. Beetroot are usually cooked easily and if they dent when pressed with a finger. If in doubt test with a skewer or the tip of a knife.
Pangrilled John Dory with Watercress Butter 

Pangrilling is one of my favourite ways to cook fish, meat and vegetables. Square or oblong cast-iron pangrills can be bought in virtually all good kitchen shops and are a ‘must have’ as far as I am concerned. In this recipe you can use almost any fish - mackerel, grey sea mullet, cod, sea bass, haddock - provided it is very fresh. We get delicious fresh fish from the boats and from Ballycotton Seafood beside us here in Shanagarry.

8 x 6 ozs (170 g) very fresh John Dory fillets
Seasoned flour
Small knob of butter
Watercress butter

Garnish
Segment of lemon
Sprigs of Watercress

First make the watercress butter.

Heat the pan grill. Dip the fish fillets in flour which has been well seasoned with salt and freshly ground pepper. Shake off the excess flour and then spread a little butter with a knife on the flesh side, as though you were buttering a slice of bread rather meanly. When the grill is quite hot but not smoking, place the fish fillets butter side down on the grill; the fish should sizzle as soon as they touch the pan. Turn down the heat slightly and let them cook for 4 or 5 minutes (time depends on the thickness of the fish). Turn over and cook on the other side until crisp and golden. Serve on a hot plate with a segment of lemon and some slices of Watercress butter. 

Watercress Butter

4ozs (110 g) butter
2-4 tablespoons finely chopped fresh watercress leaves. 
A few drops of freshly squeezed lemon juice

Cream the butter and add in the watercress and a few drops of lemon juice. Roll into butter pats or form into a roll and wrap in greaseproof paper or tinfoil, screwing each end so that it looks like a cracker. Refrigerate to harden.

Foolproof Food

Aunt Alice’s Biscuits

Serves 30
5 ozs (140g) white flour
7 ozs (215g) brown sugar (Demerara)
2¼ ozs (75g) porridge oats (Flahavans Oatmeal)
2 teasp. bread soda (sieved)
4 ozs (110g) butter
1 tablesp. golden syrup

Melt the butter and syrup together, add to the other ingredients mix well. Make into small balls and space them well on baking trays. Bake at 200C/400F/regulo 6, for about 10 minutes or until golden brown. Cool on a wire rack.

Top Tips

Georgina Campbell’s Jameson Guide for 2004 has just been published –
The Best Places to Eat, Drink and Stay in Ireland has just been published – don’t leave home without it. 

2003 Jacob’s Creek World Food Media Awards – winners have just been announced – 47 Jacob’s Creek ‘Ladles’ – the food and drink equivalent of the Oscars – were presented at a gala function in Adelaide – winners included familiar names such as Rick Stein for his tv series Food Heroes and Oz Clarke. Best Food Book was won by Australian David Thompson for Thai Food, he now operates the highly successful Nahm restaurant in London.

The new Belle Isle School of Cookery has just opened in Lisbellaw, County Fermanagh – www.irishcookeryschool.com
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