Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Who knew? Florida - the world's largest producer of watercress.


May 5, 2010
Watercress, as Fresh as a Gurgling Spring

WATERCRESS does not incite the kind of frenzy generated by ramps, those spindly wild onions that nobody bothered to pick until a few chefs began trumpeting their arrival as a major springtime event. But it is starting to show up in farmers’ markets, too, and those who know it, love it.

In a salad, as a garnish or in a sandwich, the first tender watercress of the season puts to shame the fat, often woody, rubber-banded bunches that supermarkets sell year round.

Rick Bishop, of Mountain Sweet Berry Farm in the Catskills, picks his wild right at the source of a spring on his land. Dave Harris, of Max Creek Hatchery just beyond the Catskills, finds his in the overflow of a spring. Because supplies are limited, chefs and home cooks often reserve watercress from these farmers week to week in the season, which can last into September.

Other farmers cultivate cress, like Two Guys in Woodbridge, Conn., hydroponic growers of delicious upland cress, which has a similar flavor but is not related to watercress and grows on land, not in water.

My personal watercress epiphany happened some 35 years ago. I had been visiting Washington Crossing State Park in New Jersey on a warm spring day. The ground was very moist near the Delaware River, and I noticed a carpet of small round leaves. Could it be watercress? Like Alice, I tasted a leaf or two, and it delivered a bright freshness unlike any I had ever had.

Those were the pre-arugula days, when watercress was usually called upon to add a little verve to a salad. After sampling the wild cress, I found it hard to go back to the everyday kind.

But according to Andy Brown, a partner at B & W Quality Growers, which is based in central Florida and is the world’s largest producer, I was lucky. Eating wild watercress can be as risky as nibbling a foraged mushroom.

It’s not the watercress, he said; it’s the environment. To be safe, the plants, which actually grow in water, must be right at the source of a spring before it can be contaminated by parasites carried by tiny snails or livestock or other animals. In some areas, wild cress may also have high levels of heavy metals, like copper. The British post warnings about wild watercress along some streams, according to the Web site wildaboutbritain

.co.uk. The watercress sold in stores should not pose a risk.

Jeff Aldana, a sales representative for Baldor Specialty Foods, a wholesale distributor in the Bronx, said that chefs today tend to use arugula because the cultivated watercress that he sells, from Florida, is twice as expensive.

Still, there are chefs and cooks who adore it. “I love the texture and the heat,” said Sharon Pachter, of the Grocery in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn, who was shopping at the Union Square Greenmarket in mid-April. “It’s great sautéed or in a salad.”

Watercress can be quickly blanched and puréed, often with the addition of some spinach in classic recipes, and be turned into a soup, a sauce or the basis of a savory soufflé or custard. And it’s a stir-fry staple. For these uses, the heavy stems may be left on.

The Chinese account for about 60 percent of the market, Mr. Brown said, and they prefer the bigger, woody bunches, stems and all, for dishes like beef with watercress or watercress soup.

“They regard it as a cooling ingredient and a healthful antioxidant,” he said.

In short, watercress is yin. Like other dark leafy green vegetables, it is packed with nutrients. But it’s the flavor that attracts chefs. Like tatsoi, baby mustard and radish sprouts, it is a cruciferous vegetable related to broccoli, standing ready to impart a nice feisty note.

Craig Koketsu pairs it with halibut and a pea purée at Quality Meats in Midtown. At Print, at 11th Avenue and 48th Street, Charles Rodriguez uses it to tie together the flavors of scallops, a red wine onion purée and mushrooms.

Marcus Jernmark, the executive chef at Aquavit in Midtown, folds the purée into a risotto-style dish made with barley, which he calls barlotto. He is partial to its tanginess. “It’s my palate,” he said. “I would use horseradish all the time if I could, but watercress gives a similar effect.”

Supermarket watercress often looks wilted as its shelf life diminishes rapidly. But you can refresh it by untying the bunch and dropping it into a large bowl of cold water. It will perk up. Dry it gently, and you can use it in a salad like the one with Gorgonzola and pears at Frankies Spuntino on the Lower East Side and in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn.

Mr. Brown also said that it is easy to grow at home. Put a bunch in a large bowl of water with some clean gravel in the bottom, and it will begin to put forth roots and grow. Soon it will be ready for a tender harvest, on demand.

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