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A Green That Does More Than Garnish

We know watercress as a garnish here in the United States — just a bit of decorative greenery, like a parsley sprig. That’s a shame.

In France, watercress soup is popular; basically a variant of the soup vichyssoise (potato and leek), with a fair amount of the peppery greens blended with the purée, it is creamy, green and lovely. Or watercress may replace curly endive in the classic bistro salad with bacon, egg and mustard vinaigrette. In Britain, where watercress has been a popular ingredient since Victorian times, dainty watercress sandwiches are standard tea fare, prepared like cucumber sandwiches on buttered slices of crustless white bread.

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I do love a watercress sandwich, but I’m apt to make mine a bit more robust. A freshly baked crisp baguette, split lengthwise and generously buttered, stuffed with watercress and slices of tart cornichons, is one of my all time favorite versions, suitable for a picnic or spontaneous snack.

Watercress, an aquatic plant, grows wild in streams everywhere, but unless you know the water is pure, it’s best not to pick it. One of the vendors at my local farmers’ market collects wild cress from an unspoiled freshwater spring and it is marvelous, but most watercress is cultivated, often hydroponically.

There are also several varieties of land cress, grown in soil, such as upland cress, curly cress or peppercress. It is a cruciferous vegetable (and a superfood, overflowing with nutrients), a relative of arugula, broccoli, brussels sprouts, cauliflower and kale.

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A watercress salad is always a fine idea. This colorful rendition is easy to put together and a bit unusual. It employs raw beets, for one thing, very thinly sliced and dressed only with salt, lemon juice and lemon zest. The seasoning lightly pickles the beet slices in just a few minutes. I layer the watercress and beets, adding sliced radishes and hard-cooked eggs. It is beautiful, if somewhat spartan — seasoned, but not really dressed.

It’s very good just like that. But to add richness, the salad is finished with a spoonful of zesty horseradish cream, passed separately at the table. Then it becomes something otherworldly.

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