1.08.2011

WATERCRESS: NOT JUST FOR SNOBS!

Alright, folks.  After all that rich holiday feasting, it's time for a cleanse.  Something green and cancer-fighting would be ideal.

Watercress!


Now that's a major closeup of course.  These little plants are so light and fragile that they seem to wilt just at the touch of a fingertip.  I love them.  I've always noticed bunches of watercress at the grocery store, dewy and alert atop beds of shaved ice, but have consistently passed them up for years...I know not why.  Once I picked up a bunch at a farmer's market in Atlanta, and while I was inspecting it this ancient little man popped up out of nowhere, and in some sort of broken English told me to blend it with saltwater and drink daily (I think that's what he said...).  I honestly considered it, and even went so far as to purchase the springy bunch in my hand, but a week later I'd forgotten about the recommendation from that bald apparition and found my watercress leaves wrinkly and faded in the bottom fridge drawer.  Oops.

I've come to discover the old man was actually onto something with his blender concoction--watercress is widely acknowledged for its health benefits, mainly in regard to cancer prevention.  It also contains high levels of iron, iodine, calcium, and vitamins A and C.  So it's purty good for ya.  And it has an interesting history, too--the Greeks believed it cured insanity, the Romans cultivated it for salads, and Victorian England had it brought to London by the trainload for those particular little tea sandwiches.

But here in America I'd say it hasn't really caught on the way it did elsewhere in the world.  Sure, it's sold in farmer's markets and health food stores nationwide, but I'd venture to say that a hefty percentage of folks in the U.S. have never tasted it.  Myself included of course, until just recently.  Perhaps the reason is this:  watercress seems snobby.  Think about it... the little greens are always caught in the middle of stuffy teatimes and invite-only dinners, where everyone at the table seems overly starched and mildly displeased.  Consider my own first encounter with watercress, or "cress" as it is called in this clip, from the wonderful 1990 film The Witches:



Yeah.  Boy, what a (humorous) jerk.  No wonder it took me so long to cook with the stuff.

Nowadays, however, my mind is changed:  I say we let watercress, so healthful and delicious, shed its uppity reputation. Let's give it another chance, and by golly let's invite it into our soups, salads, and sandwiches here in America!  No necktie required!

Cream of Watercress Soup

1/2 cup minced green onions
5 Tbsp butter
4 cups watercress leaves and tender stems
1/2 Tsp salt
3 Tbsp flour
4 cups boiling low-sodium vegetable stock, plus 1 1/2 cups boiling water
2 egg yolks
1/2 cup heavy cream
salt and pepper to taste

I worked out this vegetarian variation on the Julia Child classic--and let's face it, that woman was all about trying to make fancy European cuisine accessible to the average American home cook. 

First, give your watercress a thorough washing.


Then take your green onions and 3 tablespoons of butter,


and lightly cook them for 5 minutes or so.  Just until the onions are translucent.  Then you may stir in the watercress and 1/2 teaspoon salt.  Cover the pot and cook the greens until wilted.



When the watercress is tender, add the flour in slowly while stirring, and cook for another 3 minutes or so.  Remove the pot from heat, and add in the boiling vegetable stock/water mixture.  Once mixed together, pour the whole amount into your blender and puree for about a minute. Return soup to original pot.  (It's times like this when I really wish I had one of these puppies)

The result should look something akin to this:


In a separate bowl, whisk together the egg yolks and cream and then gradually beat in a cupful of the hot soup.  Next, slowly add the egg mixture into the pot, stirring all the while over moderate heat.


Cook another 2-3 minutes, but do not let the soup come to a boil.  Plunk in the remaining 2 tablespoons of butter.  Once the butter is melted through, ladle the soup into bowls and serve with salt and pepper to taste.

You may also want to garnish the dish with watercress leaves blanched for 30 seconds in boiling water--this gives a lively, peppery kick to an otherwise delicate soup.


Bon appetit--errrr, uhh, DIG IN!!



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