Turn a summer hike into a free grocery "shopping" expedition foraging for wild watercress.
This plant is delicious and a literal storehouse of vitamins (A, C, and E, to name a few) and minerals. It's available free for the gathering in almost every inhabited part of the world . . . and certainly in every state of the Union and the most heavily settled sections of Canada. And, best of all, it's harvestable year round in the southern half of this country . . . and during every month but January in the majority of our northern states.
The rather amazing wild food I'm talking about is watercress (Nasturtium officinale). And unless a friend has pointed it out to you, you could well have walked right past bushels of the "weed" on any tramp through the woods that took you along a stream, spring, small lake, or other body of water.
My husband and I "discovered" watercress quite by accident one day while out on a walk. We had just found our dog cooling himself in a branch of a small spring . . . when we realized that he was sitting up to his elbows in this pungent member of the mustard family. And to think: If it hadn't been for our "guide", we'd most surely have overlooked a small fortune (at supermarket prices) of the cress.
Nasturtium officinale was originally brought to the New World by immigrants from Europe. It's so hearty, however, that it soon "jumped the garden fence" and spread throughout the continent. Nowadays, it can be found along rivers and streams, around springs and ponds and lakes, and in marshes or low, wet areas . . . anyplace, in short, that you find water.
There's no better way to learn to identify watercress than to go down to the fresh foods section of the nearest grocery store and either purchase or take a good, long look at one of the packages of cress on sale there. As Euell Gibbons always said, "You don't need to learn about all the plants you don't want to forage. Just know—really know—the few you do want to harvest from the wilds."
In the case of watercress, you'll be looking for a floating and/or creeping plant with leaves made up of three to five oval-shaped leaflets. This cress can grow to be quite "leggy" and tall and, in the spring, exhibits clusters of small, white, four-petaled flowers. Its close relative—winter cress (Barbarea vulgaris) —grows in drier areas .. . stands more erect (one to two feet tall) . . . and has more mustardlike yellow flowers. The second cress is not quite as succulent as the first, but it too can be eaten.
Never pull up the whole plant when you're harvesting watercress (it's just a waste of time since the stem below water is tough and bitter). Instead, twist or pinch the plant's foliage off at the water's surface. You should have no trouble gathering a basketful in just a few minutes, since the cress tends to grow quite profusely anywhere it gets a start.
ONE IMPORTANT CAUTION:
Do bear in mind that we have more problems to contend with than our grandparents did. That slow-moving or standing water that cress loves so much may very well be polluted. So wash—thoroughly—all of this foraged food that you intend to eat raw in two quarts of water that contain a dissolved tablet of chlorazene, or an equivalent disinfectant. Ignore this vital step in the processing of foraged cress only if you know you'll be cooking your harvest before you eat it.
Watercress, as we all know, is usually eaten raw in salads, as a garnish, and in sandwiches. It can also be cooked, seasoned, and served up—either mixed or alone—just like spinach and other "boiling greens". Then too, watercress is delicious when quickly (for 4 or 5 minutes) stir-fried in a little oil the way the Chinese prepare so many excellent dishes.
Here, though, is my all-time favorite recipe for this green:
Melt 3 tablespoons of margarine or bacon drippings in a soup pan
Add 1/3 cup of chopped onions
2 cups of finely chopped watercress
3 cups of milk
1 cup of diced potatoes
2 tablespoons of flour
1/2 cup of sliced mushrooms (the last ingredient is optional, but I find it really adds to the dish)
Quickly sauté the mixture (this should take, at the most, 2 minutes) and remove it from the heat. Then sprinkle in 2 tablespoons of flour and whisk it around. (The flour, in case you're wondering, will bind the solution so that the vegetables in the finished soup will neither sink to the bottom nor float on top.)
Once the flour has been stirred in, return the solution to the stove and add 3 cups of milk and 1 cup of diced potatoes. Season with coarsely ground pepper and salt to taste. Then simmer the soup over low heat until the bits of potato are tender. Yield: four hearty servings.
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