Watercress the new Rocket

W
Watercress is the ‘new rocket’. After decades of being pushed to the edge of the plate as nothing more than a decorative garnish, watercress is suddenly the hippest ‘new’ ingredient, enjoying a huge renaissance as diners discover its not ‘just a bit on the side’. Chefs can’t get enough of it and they are using their creativity to use the peppery little salad leaf in a myriad of ways.

Watercress is bursting with goodness, its health benefits have been known since ancient times. Greek general Xenophon insisted that his soldiers ate it as a tonic and Hippocrates, the father of medicine, chose the location of his first hospital because of its proximity to a stream so he could use only the freshest watercress to treat his patients.

Gram for gram, watercress is a better source of vitamins C, B1, B6, K and E, iron, calcium magnesium manganese and zinc than apples, tomatoes and cooked broccoli. Its got more iron than spinach and more Vitamin C than oranges and more calcium than whole milk.

Its also a brilliant detox ingredient, the peppery mustard oils boost and regulate the activity of the liver’s enzymes. Watercress is packed with beta-carotene and Vitamin A equivalents, which are great for healthy skin and eyes. It provides iodine and most B vitamins, including folic acid which is important for a healthy pregnancy. 

Watercress is naturally low in calories and fat. Apparently, Liz Hurley drinks up to six cups of watercress soup a day when she’s on one of her famous diets, so how about that for a recommendation!.

The reality is I don’t need any convincing, ever since I was a child I’ve loved the delicious peppery flavour of watercress. Every Spring we used to pick it from the stream in the chapel meadows on the outskirts of the little village of Cullohill in Co Laois.

We ate it in sandwiches and salads with tomatoes, hard boiled eggs, scallions and lots of Chef salad cream.

Old people always spoke about watercress in the same reverential tone that they used for nettles, the other wild green which ‘purifies the blood and keeps away the rheumatics for a year’ according to ancient lore. What makes watercress unique is its high levels of a compound called phenylethl isothiocyanate, or PEITC. This gives the plant its unique peppery flavour and in scientific studies has been shown to increase the body’s potential to resist certain carcinogenic (cancer causing agents.)

The UK National Watercress week runs from 15-21 May with a myriad of events.

The week kicks off on Sunday 15 May with a Watercress Festival in the beautiful Georgian town of Alresford in Hampshire, the UK’s capital of watercress farming. Cookery demos from celebrity chef Antony Worrall Thompson, street theatre, music, children’s cookery classes, a watercress healthy quiz and a watercress food market selling a delicious range of watercress fare from smoked Hampshire trout, watercress and horseradish soup, watercress crêpes, watercress sausages, watercress scones, watercress ice cream, watercress chocolates and even watercress beer. Alresford has some great pubs and restaurants and their chefs plan to offer on an amazing range of watercress dishes to compete for the prize of Best Watercress Restaurant and Pub menu. For those who have a budding Nigella or Jamie in the family, there will be kids’ watercress Cookery workshops.

The watercress farmers will be out in force so people can find out the fascinating story behind watercress production . Seventy eight year old Bill Jesty, whose family has grown watercress in Hampshire and Dorset for six generations, has built a model watercress farm to show how gravity and a series of valves are used to channel spring water through the watercress beds, handling up to an incredible 5,000 gallons of water per acre per hour.

The Watercress Line heritage railway, so named because of the vast quantities of watercress it used to transport up to Covent Garden Market, will also be in operation.

Watercress is a classic ingredient in salads and sandwiches and of course it makes a delicious soup, but here are 12 suggestions for terrific ways to use this classic little salad leaf.

1. Make a delicious watercress pesto.

2. Stir chopped watercress into hot pasta with plenty of grated parmesan and a drizzle of olive oil.

3. Use it to fill a classic omelette with a sprinkling of parmesan cheese or stir into softly scrambled eggs just before serving.

4. To make a delicious simple salad, drain a can of cannellini beans and tuna, chop up half a cucumber and three tomatoes and mix together. Drizzle over some good vinaigrette and then toss with a bag of watercress.

5. If you are fed up with plain old mashed potato, for an extra injection of flavour, add a few peeled cloves of garlic to the potatoes whilst they boil. Drain and mash with a knob of butter and a tablespoonful or two of wholegrain mustard, then stir through a bag of roughly chopped watercress. Season with plenty of ground black pepper and a drizzle of olive oil. Great with sausages or most meat dishes.

6. Fold chopped watercress into cottage cheese or ricotta and use as a filling for baked potatoes.

7. For a tasty lunch, cut a small ciabatta loaf lengthways. Pile with creamy Cashel Blue, Crozier Blue or Gorgonzola and slices of pear and grill until just bubbling. Scatter with a large handful of watercress and sprinkle with black pepper.

8. Watercress perks up any sandwich, adding flavour and crunch. A favourite combination with marmite, or try smoked salmon topped with a mixture of crème fraiche and horseradish.

9. Watercress is a staple food among the Chinese, who believe it brings the body back into balance, both nutritionally and holistically. It’s a particular favourite in stir fries, thrown in at the last minute and cooked until just wilted.

10. Watercress mayonnaise is delicious served cold with poached salmon., asparagus or simply as a dip.

11. For a variation on salsa verde, blitz a bag of watercress, a handful of basil leaves, 1 clove of garlic, 2 tablespoons of lemon juice and 2 teaspoons of olive oil in a food processor until just smooth. Season and serve – tastes great with chargrilled tuna.

12. Finally, one of my favourite ways to eat watercress and so simple. Serve a roast on a bed of watercress on the serving dish. It is completely delicious combined with the meat juices and some crusty roast potatoes.

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.

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 first)

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.

Watercress Pesto

Serves 4
Bag of watercress
Handful of basil leaves
1 clove of garlic
handful of toasted pine nuts
5 tablesp olive oil
squeeze of lemon juice
generous shavings of Parmesan
sea salt
freshly ground pepper

Put all the ingredients into a blender, season with sea salt and freshly ground pepper. Whizz everything together, then stir into a bowl of pasta.

Here are some of the recipes prepared specially by Antony Worrall Thompson for Watercress Week.

WATERCRESS AND MUSHROOM PANCAKES

Prep: 25mins
Cook: 10 mins
Serves 6

For the pancakes:

15ml/1tbsp olive oil
1 small shallot, finely chopped
25g/1oz mushrooms, sliced
1 egg
100ml/4 fl oz milk
25g/1oz watercress leaves
25g/1oz plain flour
pinch of salt and a little freshly ground black pepper
pinch of ground allspice

For the filling:

225g/8 oz soured cream, plus extra for garnish
1 tablespoon lemon juice
85g/3 oz mushrooms, sliced
2 roasted peppers, peeled and diced * 
55g/2 oz watercress leaves
salt and freshly ground black pepper

To make the pancake batter: Heat the oil in a small pan, add the shallot and mushrooms and sauté for 2 mins until golden. Cool slightly. Place the egg, milk, watercress, flour, salt and pepper and allspice in a food processor and blend until smooth. Pour into a jug and leave to stand for 10 minutes. 
To cook the pancakes, line a plate with two sheets of kitchen paper and set it aside. Lightly brush a small frying pan with a little of the oil. Then place the pan on a medium heat until hot. Remove the pan from the heat and pour about 45ml/3 tbsp of the batter into the centre of the pan. Quickly tilt the pan in all directions to evenly coat the base of the pan. Cook over a medium heat for 1-2 mins or until the base is golden. Flip onto the other side and continue to cook until golden. Flip out onto kitchen paper. Cover with another kitchen paper. Repeat to make about 6 pancakes in total. 
To make the filling, beat the sour cream with the lemon juice until light. Add the mushrooms, peppers and watercress and lightly mix. Season to taste. Lay the cooked pancakes out on the work surface. Divide the filling between the pancakes, spooning it down the centre of each. Roll up and place in a lightly buttered shallow dish. 
Before serving bake the crepes in preheated oven 190C/Gas mark 5 for about 10 minutes. Serve hot with watercress salad. 

* Roasted peppers are available in cans or jars from supermarkets. They have all the skin and seeds removed, ready for us

GRILLED BUTTERY CHICKEN ON A BED OF WATERCRESS MASH

Prep: 10mins
Cook: 30-35mins
Serves 4 

675g/11/2 lb old potatoes, peeled
2 (85g) bags watercress, roughly chopped
90ml/6tbsp 0% fat Greek Yoghurt or milk
25g/1 oz unsalted butter, diced
pinch of grated nutmeg
salt and freshly ground black pepper
75g/3oz watercress butter (see recipe below)
4 x 175g/6oz chicken breast fillets
15ml/1tbsp olive oil

For the watercress butter* : - 

1 (85g) bag watercress, finely chopped 
75g/ 3oz unsalted butter, softened 
1 shallot, very finely chopped
5ml/1tsp English mustard

To prepare the watercress butter: in a bowl, mix the watercress, butter, shallot and mustard together with a fork, season well with freshly ground black pepper. Keep in the fridge. 
Cut the potatoes into large chunks, place in a large pan, cover with cold water and season with salt. Cover and bring to the boil, simmer for 10-15 mins or until tender. Drain, return to the pan, tip in the chopped watercress and re-cover. Leave to stand for 1-2 mins or until the watercress has wilted. 
Mash the potatoes and watercress then add the yoghurt or milk and butter. Fluff up with a fork, add the nutmeg and season to taste with ground black pepper. Keep warm. 
Meanwhile, gently push a little of the watercress butter under the skin of the chicken breast fillets. Preheat a non-stick frying pan. When hot, add the oil, then place the chicken breasts skin-side down and cook for 10-15 mins, turning once until the chicken is golden brown on both sides and cooked through. 
To serve, heap the watercress mash in the centre of four warmed plates and top with the chicken. Spoon the pan juices around the chicken and serve, garnished with a sprig of watercress and a wedge of lemon. 

* Watercress butter – you do not need to use all of this – you could dab a little on fish or a steak or baked potatoes. It will keep in the fridge

WATERCRESS, BACON AND EGG WRAP

Prep: 5 mins
Cook: none
Serves 2

2 x 23cm/9in soft flour tortillas

For the watercress butter* : - 

See previous recipe
For the filling: 
4 hardboiled free-range eggs, roughly chopped 
1 gherkin, chopped 
100g/2oz ready-made potato salad
2 rashers of crispy bacon, crumbled 
50g/2 oz watercress
freshly ground black pepper

1. To prepare the watercress butter: in a bowl, mix the watercress, butter, shallot and mustard together with a fork, season well with freshly ground black pepper. Keep at room temperature.

2. To make the filling: in a bowl mix the eggs together with the potato salad, gherkin and bacon.

3. Lay the two tortillas out on the work surface and dab with a little watercress butter. Top with the filling, leaving 2.5 cm/1 inch border at the two side. Top the mix with watercress.

4. Roll up the tortillas, folding over the borders as you do so; either cut in half or leave whole. Wrap tightly in cling-film ready for the lunchbox.

Foolproof Food

Traditional salad with watercress and Shanagarry Cream Dressing

This simple old fashioned salad 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 old-fashioned 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.

Hot Tips 

Food Active Summer Camp – attention all 11-17 year olds
Food active summer camp returns this June for the third year to run one and two week camps at St Conleth’s College, Ballsbridge, Dublin. With healthy eating for children now gaining increased recognition as an issue, FoodActive Summer Camp offers a practical and fun environment in which to discover food and be active.
info@foodactive.ie  www.foodactive.ie  Tel Eve Rowan 086 806 6111

Growing Awareness - the Skibbereen based food and farming group
Sunday 5th June, visit Andy Ra’s beautiful example of living using local resources: local timber frame eco-house, organic vegetables, chickens, milking goats – by living as close as possible to the eco-system and using local resources, Andy has minimal impact on the earth. Contact Andy Ra 027-66436 Latest details and news -www.growingawareness.org     email: walks@growingawareness.org  

Pig Party at Otto’s Restaurant, Dunworley, Butlerstown, Bandon, Co Cork
On 26th June – Buffet and Barbecue from 14.00- 18.00
Laoise O’Brien and friends will entertain with Renaissance music,
€50 per person, children half price, Slow Food Members €40. Book before 16th June with cheque made out to OCC, name and phone number. Tel 023-40461, email:ottokunze@eircom.net  www.ottoscreativecatering.com 

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Darina Allen
By Darina Allen

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