Watercress: The Only Salad Green With A Coat Of Arms

It grows in almost every climate. In many places, it can be harvested year-round. It can live wherever there's running water. It has a spicy taste but a cooling effect. No wonder it's the only salad green with a coat of arms!

Its coat of arms was granted by King Louis IX of France, who was surprised by its refreshing quality on a hot day. But its pedigree is much older: Watercress is a true ancient green (unlike some of the questionable specimens at the back of my refrigerator, which are only pretenders), dating back to the dawn of culinary history.

Watercress originated in Europe and, like all cresses, is a member of the mustard family. Once it was brought to the United States, it found, as any new immigrant does, the joys of freedom, and now grows wild in every state. As hardy as it is in the ground (or the water, actually), it's fragile once picked. It's best to buy watercress on the day you're going to use it, but you can eke a couple of days out of it by wrapping it in a damp towel and storing it in the refrigerator.

If your watercress gets a little past its prime, you're not completely out of luck. Watercress is one of those versatile greens that can be eaten raw or cooked, and the latter is the best alternative for an aged specimen.

Watercress adds zing to any green salad, but that's just the beginning:

  • Try a grilled chicken sandwich with roasted peppers and watercress on focaccia.
  • Let it stand on its own as a side dish. Sauté it for a minute or two in sesame oil and black pepper.
  • Add watercress leaves to chicken, tuna, or potato salad.
  • Watercress adds tang and color to potato-leek soup. Add it just before you puree the soup.
  • Lightly steamed watercress makes a great bed for grilled poultry or seafood.
  • Try roasting beets with sweet onions and serving them warm with watercress and a little crumbled Stilton cheese.
  • Add pureed watercress to mashed potatoes for bite.
  • Make a tricolor salad with watercress, corn kernels, and diced red pepper. Use a mild vinaigrette or buttermilk dressing.
  • Puree some cooked white beans with roasted garlic, watercress, and enough chicken stock to make a thick paste for a dip or spread.

Watercress, Beet and Orange Salad

The dressing for this salad can be up to a day ahead. The vegetables can also be prepped a day ahead. Wash the watercress and wrap in dampened paper towels; section the oranges; cook and slice the beets. Store each ingredient in a separate container in the fridge.

5 medium-size beets (approx. 2 pounds without the tops)
2 large oranges
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
1/2 teaspoon sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon coarsely ground black pepper
2 bunches watercress, tough stems removed
1/2 a medium-size red onion, sliced thinly

1. In a large pot, over high heat, with enough water to cover them, bring the beets to a boil. Reduce to low heat and simmer, covered, for 30 minutes or until the beets are tender.

2. In the meantime, grate 1 teaspoon of peel from the oranges. Cut off the remaining pith and peel and cut the segments from between the membranes. Be sure to hold the orange over a large bowl in order to catch the juice for your dressing. Set aside the orange segments. Add the olive oil, red wine vinegar, salt, pepper, sugar and orange zest to the orange juice and whisk well.

3. Drain the beets and cool them under cold running water. Peel them and cut each one in half, then cut into 1/4" slices.

4. Add the beets, watercress, red onion and orange segments to the large bowl with dressing and toss to coat evenly.

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