April 17, 2013

The Maine Ingredient: Secret pockets of peppery wild watercress reward seekers

This weekend I heard about a secret patch of watercress found on the bank of a swift-flowing river in early spring, when the mornings are still crisp and leaves have not yet bloomed on the trees, allowing for sunlight to hit this verdant spot for only a three-week period.

Upon hearing of this hidden treasure, I had dreams of donning my muck boots and setting out in search of this or another equally delightful catch.

Visions of independence and self-sufficiency danced briefly through my head until the reality of weekend chores, my own gardening and family time crashed into my daydream. Instead, I was able to find a bag of local cress at the co-op and then began to have dreams of how to prepare it. Much more manageable.

Wild watercress, or cress, is more peppery and cleaner than store-bought watercress or even arugula. It grows in wet land, hence the name, and can withstand fairly cool temperatures.

Not bitter like some greens, watercress is part of the cabbage family and releases delicate, volatile oils that when chewed remind one slightly of a floral hot mustard.

Either creamy or acidic pairings go well with its peppery nature, either softening or matching its delicate intensity.

A so-called superfood because of its nutrient density, watercress is also a perfect addition to the smoothies I mentioned in my last column.

If you've been able to work yourself up to the bright green drinks in the morning, try wild watercress for a nutrient boost for the next three weeks.

Apparently, the diuretic properties of watercress don't lend well to prolonged, habitual consumption, but as an occasional addition or over a several week period, it seems beneficial.

If you happen to find your own patch of treasured wild watercress, make sure the river is unpolluted. Whatever is happening upstream -- roadside pollution, developed areas with fertilizer runoff or some sort of industrial pursuit -- will all be absorbed by the plants.

Treat watercress in salad as you would any other pungent green by adding lots of acid and either a slightly sweet or rich component such as cheese, nuts or avocado.

When cooked, the delicate greens act much like spinach, so a quick searing is all that is needed.

Combined with some chopped crisp bacon and a poached egg, watercress becomes the highlight of a spring dinner.

In the soup recipe that follows, the bright green and peppery components pair well with the creamy feel of the pureed potatoes.

CREAMY POTATO AND WATERCRESS SOUP

2 tablespoons butter

2 cups diced onions

11/2 pounds russet potatoes, peeled and quartered lengthwise and then cut into 1/2-inch slices

1 teaspoon salt

Pinch of white pepper

2 tablespoons flour

1 cup white wine

4 cups chicken broth (or vegetable broth)

2 ounces watercress, about 2 cups, chopped into 1-inch lengths

Melt butter in a large stock pot over medium-high heat. Add the onions and saute for 7 to 10 minutes or until the onions are translucent.

Add the potatoes, salt and pepper and saute for another 5 minutes. Add the flour and stir until all is incorporated. Add the wine and broth and bring to a boil.

Reduce to a simmer and cook for 30 minutes, making sure the potatoes are cooked through and tender when pierced with a fork.

Remove the soup from heat and transfer in batches to a blender. Blend until the soup is smooth and creamy, adding broth if necessary to thin.

Return the soup to the stock pot over medium heat, add the watercress and cook for another 2 to 3 minutes or until the cress is tender but still bright green. Serves 4 to 6.

 

Anne Mahle of Rockland is the author of "At Home, At Sea." She can be reached at chefannie@mainewindjammer.com

 

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