Cookery Feature - Why Not Try Watercress?

With water generally abundant in Ireland I’ve often wondered why the wonderfully peppery ‘superfood’ watercress is so hard to come by, as it’s a versatile ingredient that gives a piquant extra dimension to salads and many other dishes. You may spot it occasionally in small greengrocers or in supermarkets (most likely UK ones, such as M&S), but the best solution might be to forage for it (a new activity for your staycation, perhaps) or to grow the similar American Land Cress (Barbarea verna) at home.

There are a few commercial growers, such as McCormack Family Farms in Co Meath, who supply land cress to foodservice customers (and mixed leaf bags to supermarkets). Mr Middleton offers watercress seeds and advice (ie give it plenty of water) and so do some other specialist suppliers. Watercress seeds are probably best used for microgreens, while the less demanding land cress - which I have grown successfully myself - is a more practical alternative for ordinary garden soil and the seeds are quite easily available, including from the exciting new SOLAS Eco Garden Shop at Portarlington.

True watercress (Nasturtium officinale) is a fast-growing semi-aquatic perennial plant and one of the oldest known leaf vegetables consumed by human beings. Watercress belongs to the cabbage (brassica) family, and is related to the more familiar little cress and mustard plants— which, like the nasturtiums that grow so freely in our gardens, are all known for their peppery flavour.

Watercress grows in streams all over Ireland from spring through to autumn and, providing it is clean running water with no effluent running into it from grazing animals (which introduces serious risks, including liver fluke parasite), it is safe to pick. The darker leaves have best flavour and it’s easy to use, just wash well, trim, and shake dry before using as a salad green or as a recipe ingredient.

As Darina Allen points out in her invaluable book, Forgotten Skills of Cooking (Kyle Cathie), watercress “…formed part of the diet of hermits and holy men, who valued its special properties, which we now know include significant amounts of iron, calcium, folic acid, vitamins A and C.

Watercress is brilliant for detox – the mustard oils boost and regulate the liver’s enzymes. Its beta carotene and vitamin A are good for healthy skin and eyes, and watercress is naturally low in calories and fat. Gram for gram, watercress has more iron than spinach, more vitamin C than oranges and more calcium than full cream milk…” Legend has it that it was watercress that enabled St Brendan to live the ripe old age of 180! And Hippocrates, the father of medicine, chose the location of his first hospital so he could use only the freshest watercress to treat his patients.

Although it’s valued by many Irish chefs for the freshness and piquancy that it brings to all sorts of dishes, watercress is much more widely used in the UK, where there is even a dedicated watercress website,
giving information on health benefits and everything to do with this remarkable plant, plus a great range of recipes including those below. Could this is be a crop with potential for development in Ireland?


Thai Grilled Watercress Salmon 
Fish – especially oily fish such as salmon – works well with watercress, and it also partners well with light oriental flavours as in this summery main dish. Serves 4.

100g watercress, roughly chopped
18 mint leaves
½ teaspoon salt
2 cloves garlic, crushed
2 green chillies, seeds removed
3 tbsp fresh lime juice
1 tbsp caster sugar
1 tbsp chopped fresh ginger
1 tbsp fish sauce (Nam Pla)
4 x 175g salmon fillets
Watercress Raiita:
200ml Greek yogurt
100g watercress finely chopped
1 small clove garlic, finely chopped salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

1 Place the watercress, mint, salt, garlic and chillies in a food processor and whizz until finely chopped. Add the lime juice caster sugar, ginger and fish sauce and process to make a paste. Place the salmon in a glass dish or plate, spoon over the paste and toss until evenly coated. Cover and leave to marinate in the fridge, for at least 20 minutes.
2 Whilst the salmon marinates, make the raiita: mix the yogurt, watercress and garlic together with seasoning to taste. Spoon into a bowl and chill until required.
3 Cook the salmon on a hot griddle or barbecue for 4-5mins on each side. Serve with the watercress raiita on the side.

Shepherd’s Pie with Watercress Champ 
Comfort food at its best, this could make a lovely family dinner on a self catering staycation. It’s from chef Antony Worrall Thompson, who is a huge fan of watercress. This kind of pie was normally made with the leftovers of the Sunday joint whatever that happened to be, but it’s flexible and, says Antony, “I often serve a variation on the classic using cauliflower cheese instead of mashed potato which is lower in carbohydrate. However, there’s really no comparison for the real thing - just serve a big dollop and enjoy!”
Serves 6

1 tbsp vegetable oil
500g/1lb 2oz lean minced lamb
1 large onion, chopped
1 tbsp plain flour
400g/14oz can chopped tomatoes
300m/l/½ pints lamb, beef or chicken stock
2 fresh bay leaves
1 tsp dried thyme
1 tsp anchovy essence (optional)
2 tsp Worcestershire sauce
For the Mashed Potatoes
700g/1½ lb floury potatoes such as Maris Piper, peeled and cut into chunks
150ml/¼ pint milk
4 spring onions
50g/ 2oz unsalted butter
1 egg yolk
200g/ watercress, roughly chopped
salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Preheat the oven to 180ºC/Fan 160º/Gas 4. Heat the oil in a heavy based pan, add the mince and cook over a fairly high heat until evenly browned, breaking up any lumps with a wooden spoon. Add the onion and cook for 5 minutes until softened but not browned, stirring occasionally.

Add the flour and cook stirring for 1 minute. Then stir in the chopped tomatoes, stock, bay leaves, thyme and anchovy essence, Worcestershire sauce and a good pinch of pepper. Bring to the boil, stirring occasionally, then reduce the heat, cover and simmer for 25 minutes or until the lamb is tender and sauce thickened and rich. Season to taste

Whilst the lamb cooks, cook the potatoes in boiling salted water for 15-20 minutes, or until tender. Drain the potatoes, then return to the pan and mash until smooth. Cook the spring onions in the milk for 3-4 minutes then tip into the mash with the butter, egg yolk and watercress and stir through with a fork, until it is nice and fluffy. Season to taste.

Spoon the lamb mixture into a 3-pint/1.75 litre pie dish, discarding the bay leaves. Spoon the fluffy watercress mash on top and fluff up with a fork. Bake for 25-30 minutes, or until bubbling and golden brown. Serve hot with green vegetables.

Cook’s tip: If you are running short on time, after smoothing the hot mash on top of the mince you can skip the baking stage and just brown it under a medium hot grill for 5 minutes until crisp.

Panch Phora Crispy Egg, Burnt Chilli Salsa & Watercress Salad 
A feisty main course salad recipe from chef Suze Morrison, who is based in Dorset - one of the UK’s top watercress-producing counties.
Serves 4

5 eggs (room temperature)
50g plain flour
80g panko breadcrumbs (briefly pulsed to a smaller crumb)
2 tbsp panch phora (see below)
pinch salt
½ tsp turmeric
oil for deep frying
150g watercress
Panch Phora: ½ tsp each of: mustard seeds, nigella seeds, cumin seeds, fennel seeds + ¼ tsp fenugreek seeds

Burnt Chilli Salsa:
200g tomatoes, halved
3 red chillies
4 cloves garlic, skin on
1 onion, peeled and cut into chunks
2 tbsp olive oil
1 tsp brown sugar
2 tbsp lime juice
½ bunch coriander, roughly chopped
salt & cracked black pepper to season

Begin with the Panch Phora. Lightly toast the seeds in a dry pan until fragrant. Pour into a jar and set aside.
Bring a small pan of water to a rolling boil and cook 4 of the eggs in it for 4½ minutes. Run under cold water and peel. Be careful, they are delicate.
Roll the eggs in the flour then beat the remaining egg. Mix 2 tbsp of the Panch Phora mixture into the breadcrumbs with the salt and turmeric.
With a clean hand take one egg at a time and roll in the breadcrumb mix. Remove, roll back in the beaten egg and roll for a second time in the breadcrumb mix. This method of ‘double pane’ ensures you have a good thick crust on your egg.
Pop in the fridge while you make the salsa.
Heat the grill to high and pile the tomatoes, chillies, garlic and onion onto a tray, drizzle with the oil and grill until charred, you want a good blackening for flavour.
Remove the stems from the chillies and the skin from the garlic then pound all the ingredients in a pestle & mortar to a chunky paste. You can use a food processor, but this will chop rather than pound the ingredients together.
Add the sugar, lime juice & coriander and taste, season with salt & pepper to your liking.
Heat the oil for deep frying to 180C. Carefully add the eggs and fry for 2-3 minutes or until golden and crisp. Drain and sprinkle with a little salt.
When ready, divide the watercress between 4 plates. Top with the salsa and a crispy egg. Watch that yolk oooooze!


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