Cresses are underused greens, in my opinion. Perhaps this is because most cooks are aware of only watercress, which in its usual greengrocer’s form is rather mild and unmemorable. Wild watercress, on the other hand, is fiery stuff, and its cousins, the land cresses, can be even more so.
The restoration of the savannah east of the rail lines just below Dayton’s Bluff has included remediation of Phalen Creek. That fine little coldwater creek now runs clear and clean, and it is crowded with wild watercress; you can spot the cress in Swede Hollow’s seeps and in the fast-moving creek itself in the National Park Service (NPS)’s Bruce Vento Nature Sanctuary. Watercress is an indicator species for high-calcium, clean coldwater streams—and Phalen Creek is now plush with heaps of it.
The creek being part of a NPS sanctuary, its watercress is off-limits to harvesting, but I suspect the government wouldn’t begrudge you a leaf or two. It’s worth establishing a benchmark for the bite and bitterness of wild cress—the taste is definitely worth learning.
And then, very happily, you can set about using the hydroponically grown cress at Mississippi Market or farming your own upland cress. The former lacks the teeth of wild watercress, and that may please you if fieriness is not your goal. The latter can blow the top of your head off, and all you need to grow it is a clay pot, a big saucer to put beneath that pot, and plenty of sunshine and water.
Hydroponically grown watercress like that we sell at Mississippi Market is a gentler creature than its wild cousin. It’s a lovely substitute for sprouted seeds in sandwiches and salads. It contributes just a bit of tang to creamy sauces, cheese-based dips, and sandwich fillings. Because its leaves are very thin, it doesn’t fair well when subjected to heat, unless you choose to lose its texture entirely—for example, watercress soup is luscious, but the leaves pretty much melt into your soup base, contributing only flavor and jubilant green color.
Salute to Spring Stir-Fry
2 Tbs. mild extra-virgin olive oil
1/3 c. shallots, finely chopped
2 Tbs. fresh ginger, minced
Generous handful of fresh shiitake, cut thickly, stems removed
½ lb. young, thin asparagus, cut into 2” diagonal slices
2 Tbs. chicken or mushroom broth or white wine
Freshly ground black pepper and sea salt to taste
1 c. fresh cress (water or land)
Fresh lemon juice
- Heat wok or skillet on MEDIUM; when it becomes hot, add oil. When oil begins to shimmer, add shallots and garlic; cook until they become golden brown.
- Add mushrooms and cook until white cross-sections of their caps become pale gold. Add asparagus and stir until coated with oil. They only need about 2 minutes if you want them to remain crisp. (Cook a bit longer if you prefer them soft.) Add liquid, then taste for seasoning and add salt and pepper.
- When stir-fry tastes right, remove from heat, stir in cress, and add a squeeze of lemon juice. Serve immediately.
You can substitute homegrown land cress. Either way, the color is beautiful!
2 Tbs. butter
½ c. chopped yellow onion
1 russet potato, peeled and chopped (medium-sized)
2 c. chicken or vegetable stock
½ lb. cress
1–2 c. whole milk or ½ c. heavy cream
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
- Melt butter in heavy pot over MEDIUM heat. When foaming stops, add onion and potato, and stir to coat them. Cover, reduce heat to LOW, and simmer for about 10 minutes.
- Test potatoes for doneness; they should be almost cooked through. When they are, add stock, return heat to MEDIUM, and bring mixture to a boil. Cook until potatoes are very tender.
- Add cress and cook just until it is soft. Add milk to stop the cooking; the amount you add is variable, depending on how thick you want your soup to be.
- Scrape the mixture into your blender and purée. Add salt and pepper to taste.