Watercress has many personalities. Peppery with heat but also succulent and cooling, it’s both seasoning and vegetable, salad leaf and star of the soup pot.
The Romans favoured watercress as food as well as medicine with good reason: packed with bone-strengthening vitamins K, C and A, it’s also brimming with minerals and healthful plant compounds. Those abundant emerald-green leaves and long juicy stalks are beautiful too, and why they’ve traditionally been used to garnish roasted meat like a verdant crown. Watercress is just an endlessly lovely, tasty and healthy ingredient.
To the uninitiated, crunching on a raw sprig or two can make eyes water and sinuses tingle from the mustardy oils. But paired companionably, watercress makes a delicious counterpoint to rich foods, and creamy or starchy ingredients can tame its robust flavour. Watercress is commonly sold in bunches – avoid those that are yellowing or wilting. Both the leaves and stalks are edible, so there’s no need for trimming. Store in a glass of water in the fridge covered with a plastic bag to prolong the freshness.
The simplest way to enjoy watercress is stuffed into a sandwich comprising nothing more than good soft bread spread thickly with salted butter. Add a slice of cold roast beef if you have some; the watercress serves as a subsite for similarly pungent horseradish and hot mustard. Or go basic and make a simple salad by tossing watercress with some milder leaves and then dress with a basic vinaigrette made with walnut oil.
For a more complex salad, add flakes of oily fish like salmon, trout or smoked mackerel: the watercress cuts through the richness beautifully. Or try a salad composed of seafood such as lobster, prawns or scallops, sliced bitter citrus (grapefruit or pomelo are lovely) and watercress to tick the sweet/sour/peppery boxes. New boiled potatoes slicked with a creamy buttermilk or sour cream dressing also marry beautifully with robust watercress, as do soft and strongly flavoured cheese, like goat or blue.
Seared sliced steak is a fantastic companion to watercress, evoking the simple and classic Italian dish, Tagliata, which traditionally uses rocket as a bed for the meat. Or serve roast chicken like the French do, adorned with a handful of watercress: the sweet flesh of the bird and the peppery leaves make a very tasty marriage. Don’t forget pesto. Blitz together a handful of watercress leaves and stalks (make sure there are lots of lovely leaves), a handful of lightly toasted nuts (walnut, pistachio or almonds all work well), a generous grating of Parmesan, a couple of garlic cloves and enough good olive oil to make a sauce the consistency you love. Add lemon juice and salt (if needed) to taste. Stir this verdant sauce through pasta, add spoonfuls to sliced tomatoes on toast, or spoon green mounds on top of a simple prawns stew.
Watercress makes a vibrant soup. Gently fry off finely chopped onion or shallot, some diced potatoes and sliced garlic until softened but not coloured. Pour in enough vegetable or chicken stock to cover well, and simmer until tender. Add chopped watercress for the last few minutes of cooking – don’t add earlier or it will lose its sublime colour – then blitz until smooth. Add a spoonful of sour cream if you fancy, and lots of salt and pepper.
Don’t forget watercress when preparing simple braised vegetables. Peas, sliced Little Gem lettuce and watercress cooked gently in a little stock and butter – with nuggets of salty bacon or speck if that appeals – make a terrific side dish.
Perfect partners: eggs, strong soft cheese, oily fish, roast meat, sweet and bitter citrus, potato, nuts.