Posted On: 03/01/2010
When Greg Parkinson wades into the spring-fed creek on his family’s Moder Valley Nursery and farm to harvest watercress this month, he’ll carry on a Parkinson family tradition that dates back to the early 1940s. Back then, his great-uncle harvested and delivered watercress to the tony Chase Hotel in St. Louis. “My family’s been on this farm since the late 1800s,” he said, “and … as long as I can remember, we’ve had watercress. The spring originates on our farm, under Byrnes Mill Road now. The water comes through an old cave. When the water hits sunlight, the watercress starts.”
When Parkinson and his brother Jeff brought watercress to the March markets last season, they tacked up photos of the stream filled with watercress. A frill of green spilling up from the water, 10 feet wide and just over 100 feet long, the silvery stream narrowed, the watercress dark against the light snow on the ground – the photo mesmerized me. I love the sprightly taste, the tender bite and the juiciness of fresh cress.
“Most people my age – 20s and 30s – haven’t tasted watercress,” Parkinson said. “The taste, I’d say, is peppery, but not overwhelming.” For starters, Parkinson suggests adding it to omelets, as you would spinach leaves, or zinging up salad greens with a handful of watercress.
Cresses add a pungent sparkle to salads, mixing well with lettuces, greens, citrus and red onions. Used as a plate garnish, the bold taste stands up to roast lamb and beef. Sauces made with cress pair well with salmon. Soups tend to be creamy, with cress as the star, leeks or shallots thinly sliced, chicken broth, a little cream, some butter and cooked potatoes, diced small.
Sarah Vickers, director of operations at The Market at Busch’s Grove, grew up in Wales, where cress is a spring staple. She remembers her mother serving watercress soup with potato cakes on the side. “When we were young, we wouldn’t eat the cress in salads. Our mother liked the taste, so she made the soup.” Cooked, the sharp flavor mellows. “When we first came here, I thought microgreens were cresses – they look very much the same.”
Walker Claridge of the Root Cellar Farm in Millersburg, Mo., uses Presto, a cress he grows in his greenhouse, at both restaurants he operates in Columbia. He uses them like microgreens to garnish a plate and perk up his salad mix. He characterizes the flavor as spicy and citrusy. “It’s perfect mixed with egg salad,” he said. Other sandwiches benefit from cress, too. “I’ll pile the leaves on like lettuce or mix it with goat cheese or cream cheese and spread it on a thinly sliced bread.”
When Claridge wears his farmer’s hat, he describes the merits of Presto with the fervor of a preacher. “I dedicate a 100-yard row in the greenhouse to Presto, but it’s a hardy plant you can sow right now, in the snow,” he said. “If you have a raised bed at home, cleared from last year, sow Presto seed right on top of the snow. The sun burns a hole through the snow where the seed is, and as the snow melts, the seed drops down into the soil. Freeze-thaw cycles get the seeds into the ground. … Presto lives through the cold and springs back in when the sun comes out. But,” he added, “you need a raised bed for this to work.” The plants can be trimmed like microgreens or used as baby cress at six weeks. The plant matures in only 10 weeks.
Don’t worry if you don’t have a raised bed or a spring-fed stream to grow your own cresses: Parkinson and Claridge will both have cress at the Maplewood Farmers’ Market Saturday, March 27. Early lettuces should be available as well, perfect for making a mix for salads. The Market at Busch’s Grove, Jay International Foods and most supermarkets also carry watercress.
Cresses offer lots of taste for not much money. The locally grown cress is so fresh, the taste bracing and the bite tender, be sure to dust off the market basket and buy some this March.
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