Bring on the pomp and circumstance, as Britain prepares to officially celebrate Queen Elizabeth’s 90th birthday tomorrow.
After travelling along London’s Mall in horse-drawn carriages and assembling on the balcony of Buckingham Palace for their annual photo op, Her Majesty and Co., along with her loyal Canadian subjects, will surely be ready for a pot of tea and some dainty watercress sandwiches.
This dark leafy green from the mustard family with its dime-sized leaves and sturdy stems has been sought after for centuries for its peppery flavour and medicinal properties, particularly if your blood needs cleansing or you’re in danger of contracting scurvy.
More recently, watercress has been called The Healthiest Leafy Vegetable on the Planet. Though author B&W Growers also happens to be the world’s largest watercress grower, the nutritional qualities of this aquatic plant are certainly impressive. The feisty little green is fortified with more than 18 vitamins and minerals including potassium, Vitamin C and iron. It’s also an antioxidant powerhouse.
“It’s going to be the next kale,” says Todd Gosule, B&W’s executive VP of sales, based in Florida.
“It’s just as nutritious but has a different flavour profile.”
Pauline Slegers, co-owner of Slegers organic greenhouse in Strathroy, sells pretty upland cress complete with its roots.
“It has a nice peppery bite but it’s not crazy hot,” says Slegers.
Among its many culinary uses, the pungent flavour and delicate crunch of watercress works well raw in salads or slipped into sandwiches, stir-fried or puréed into an elegant soup, fit for a Queen!
- The history of watercress dates back 3,000 years to the Persians, Greeks and Romans. It apparently helped Roman emperors make bold decisions.
- Feeding his sailors watercress to prevent scurvy may have allowed Captain James Cook to circumnavigate the globe three times in the late 1700s.
- The aquatic plant appeared in Germany in the mid-1500s and was first cultivated as a salad green in Britain in the early 1800s.
- It was brought to North America by European immigrants.
- Eating watercress is said to be a good hangover cure, as well as a breath freshener.
- B&W grows it in 1 to 2 inches of flowing water in man-made beds.
Buy & Store
- Look for compact bunches of watercress bound with an elastic band or B&W’s convenient 113g bag, which I found at Longo’s.
- The Slegers sells their living cress in a square clamshell.
- The leaves should be crisp and dark green.
- Refrigerate in a plastic bag for several days.
- Remove thick stems with a knife or scissors; discard or save for soup.
- Place watercress sprigs in a colander and rinse well with cold water.
- Pat dry with a paper towel or run through a salad spinner.
- Eat raw, lightly steam or stir-fry.
Perfect pairings: Pungent watercress pairs well with the buttery flavours of avocado, cheese, smoked salmon, sautéed shiitakes and scrambled eggs. It also complements spicy chorizo sausage, roasted red peppers, pears, apples and toasted nuts.
Tea sandwiches: Layer watercress sprigs between slices of buttered bread, or chop cress into small pieces, mix with cream cheese and chives and spread on whole grain bread and garnish with fresh cucumber slices.
Soup: Add watercress to stock simmering with leeks and potatoes for a classic French potage.
Stir-fry: Heat oil in a wok or skillet. Add minced garlic and ginger and cook 1 minute. Add 1 seeded, chopped tomato and cook down to a paste. Add a bunch of washed, dried watercress. Cook, turning occasionally with tongs, until tender and wilted. Season to taste.
Supercharged salad: Give your favourite greens a bite of cress or build a hearty salad around sprigs of watercress. Add sliced radishes and fennel or cucumber chunks and parsley and dress with a citrus or soy vinaigrette.
- Watercress avocado salad
Consider adding some leftover or store-bought roast chicken to this already hearty salad, adapted from Martha Stewart. Jarred red peppers save time, while walnut oil adds a luxurious flavour and texture.
2 tbsp (30 mL) olive oil
12 large shiitake mushrooms, stemmed and sliced
2 tsp soy sauce, divided
1 tbsp lemon juice
3 tbsp walnut oil
Freshly ground black pepper to taste
1 bunch watercress, washed and dried, tough stems removed
1 large ripe avocado, cut in quarters lengthwise
2 roasted red peppers, seeded and sliced
1/4 cup sliced almonds, toasted
Heat olive oil in a medium skillet over medium-high heat. Add shiitakes and cook, stirring or shaking the pan constantly, until tender. Drizzle with 1 teaspoon soy sauce and continue cooking until almost crisp. Set aside.
In a small bowl, whisk remaining 1 tsp soy sauce with the lemon juice and pepper to taste. Add walnut oil and whisk until thick. Taste and adjust seasoning.
Place watercress in a large salad bowl. Remove avocado pit and cut crosswise into thin slices. Slide slices off the skin into the bowl. Toss in peppers and mushrooms. Add just enough dressing to coat and toss again. Divide mixture among four plates and sprinkle with almonds.
Makes 4 servings.