Watercress is easy to find, and it adds a wonderful peppery freshness to simple spring salads, soups or pasta dishes.
The peppery taste of watercress makes it one of my favourite salad greens. Fresh and quite hot, its elegant sprigs are a beautiful addition to any salad, as well as a handsome garnish for all sorts of different dishes.
Related to mustard greens, you can forage for all the free watercress you can find — though beware of liver fluke, more of which in a minute. Thankfully it is also available in shops, or you can quite easily grow your own.
We are really lucky in that there are woodlands and streams around where we live, and I often pick a few leaves of watercress for some fabulously free foraged food. Watercress is — unsurprisingly — found around rivers and streams. However, it can harbour a quite dangerous parasite known as common liver fluke or sheep liver fluke.
When foraging watercress, it is vital to have a look upstream from where the plant is growing. If you find livestock, farms or housing developments, look elsewhere. Find clean water and you'll find safe watercress.
If you'd like to avoid foraging for watercress but would still like to pick it fresh, you can easily grow your own. The seeds can be sown directly into pots and they will germinate and grow happily if the pot is kept damp.
The salad recipe, right, is a wonderful way of tempering watercress's pepperiness. Rather than other leaves, the cooling effect here is provided by the rich avocado and the sweet, juicy orange. Such a simple salad but such a good example of making something divine from just a few delicious and well-balanced ingredients.
I adore the recipe for watercress soup, with its bright green colour and wonderful fresh flavour. It is a great expression of the watercress's flavour and works so well as a healthy supper with some crusty bread.
AVOCADO, ORANGE AND WATERCRESS SALAD
You will need: 1 orange 55ml (2fl oz) olive oil Juice of ½ a lemon
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 avocados, halved, peeled, stoned and cut into approximately 2cm (¾in) cubes, see my
Tip, above right 125g (4½oz) watercress sprigs (about 6 handfuls) First peel and segment the orange. Using a small, sharp knife and working over a bowl to catch the juices, cut off the ends, then carefully cut away the peel and pith in a spiral until you have a peeled orange with only flesh and no white pith.
Next carefully cut along the edge of each segment, leaving behind the membrane and freeing a wedge of flesh from the pith. Repeat for all the segments and place the flesh in the bowl; squeeze the peel and membrane into the bowl to catch any extra juice, then discard. Mix the olive oil into the bowl with the lemon juice and season with sea salt and freshly ground black pepper. Add the avocado cubes and watercress sprigs, gently toss together and serve.
TAGLIATELLE WITH SMOKED SALMON, WATERCRESS AND PEAS
You will need: Salt
500g (1lb 2oz) tagliatelle
200g (7oz) creme fraiche
200g (7oz) smoked salmon, sliced into strips 1cm (½in) wide
50g (2oz) frozen peas
25g (1oz) Parmesan, finely grated
Good squeeze of lemon juice
2 tablespoons chives, chopped
Freshly ground black pepper
50g (2oz) watercress leaves, roughly chopped
Fill a large saucepan with water, add a teaspoon of salt and bring to the boil. Add the tagliatelle and cook for 10-12 minutes (or follow the instructions on the packet), stirring occasionally, until the pasta is just tender.
Meanwhile, place the creme fraiche in a saucepan on a low heat and gently warm through for a minute. Add the smoked salmon strips and cook for 2-3 minutes, stirring occasionally.
At the same time, cook the frozen peas in a small saucepan of boiling, salted water — I usually use some of the pasta cooking water from the large saucepan — for 1-2 minutes or until just cooked. Add the peas to the creme fraiche mixture along with three-quarters of the finely grated Parmesan, the squeeze of lemon juice and half of the chopped chives, and stir together. Season to taste with salt and freshly ground black pepper and remove from the heat.
Drain the cooked pasta — leaving a couple of tablespoons of the cooking liquid in the saucepan — and return it to the saucepan, removed from the heat. Scatter the roughly chopped watercress over the pasta and then pour over the creme fraiche mixture.
Toss everything together so that all the ingredients are well combined, then check the seasoning, adding more salt and freshly ground black pepper or lemon juice if necessary.
Divide between plates or pasta bowls, scatter with the remaining chives and serve.
You will need: 25g (1oz) butter or 2 tablespoons olive oil 125g
(4oz) onions, chopped
150g (5oz) potatoes, peeled and chopped
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
600ml (1pt) chicken or vegetable stock
600ml (1pt) milk 350g (12oz) watercress (only remove the large stalks), chopped
In a large saucepan, melt the butter or add the olive oil, whichever you’re using. Add the chopped onions and chopped potatoes. Season with salt and freshly ground black pepper, cover and cook on a very low heat for 8-10 minutes until soft. Add the chicken or vegetable stock, whichever you are using, and the milk. Bring to the boil, then add the chopped watercress and cook uncovered over a high heat for about a minute; don't overcook it or it will lose its fresh green colour. Liquidise carefully while hot, and season to taste.
For some hands-on foraging lessons, come down to Ballymaloe Cookery School next Saturday where Darina will be taking people on a spring foraging expedition. See www.cookingisfun.ie