It seems every bit appropriate to write about first fresh, green harvest of the year, watercress, on the first day of spring. I generally gather the year's first cress from a lovely Dunn County spring that seeps from a modest limestone outcropping and slides a dozen long paces before it freshens a sweet little stream; the stream has a name, but I’ve forgotten it. It’s one of those myriad trout streams, as designated by the State of Wisconsin DNR, which, when you look at the published map showing all such waters, could fool you into thinking that our neighborhood would be a trout fisher’s paradise. Northern Dunn and southern Barron Counties are as thickly veined with trout streams—color-coded blue, red, yellow, and green—as a diagram of the circulatory system. But few are worth the trouble to explore; shallow, sandy, alder-choked or simply so tiny that a flycaster would need a marksman’s precision just to land a fly on the water. But I digress. It happens. Have you been here before?
The stream whose name I know not is nonetheless a pretty stream with lots of character, riffle water, bends, promising pools for local kids to either drop a worm into or wade and splash in on a hot summer day. As winter departs the spring, perhaps 10 feet wide, becomes carpeted with glistening cress, variegated light and darker green, with intimations of reddish veining and browned patches, scars from the last hard freezes. I mentioned picking cress, but really I snip it—if I’ve had the forethought to bring a pair of scissors. By snipping the upper leaves I disturb the roots as little as possible, making it a sustainable harvest. If I don’t have scissors I use my pocket knife to trim the top rosettes. Half a plastic grocery sack provides plenty of cress to work with for a few meals.
First and best is simply to eat it raw, and lightly dressed (if you’re eating raw cress be sure it comes from a spring or headwaters that hasn’t run through grazing land, particularly where sheep abide). A straight-up watercress salad is often extremely assertive, but in early spring its peppery pungency is usually tolerable—and a welcome wake-up call to taste buds somewhat dulled by root cellar dining.
Watercress can be used as an herb. In my cookbook I use it in a pesto with ramps, and to give green relief to celeri remoulade. The first thing I did with this year’s first snipping was to make a watercress mayonnaise. Though I almost always make mayo the old-fashioned way, with a bowl and a whisk, I used an immersion blender for this one, for three reasons:
2) So as to really puree the cress into the mayo, and
3) The immersion blender is a fairly new toy that I haven’t done much with
We smeared the mayo on bread to make bacon sandwiches, and also kept the extra on hand to dunk oven fries from garden potatoes. In the manner of the old lady who swallowed a fly, the story of this simple, but rather labor-intensive meal, was this:
I snipped the cress
to make a mayo
to dress the fresh bread
that made a bed
for the bacon I smoked
from belly that bathed
in maple I tapped
from our own trees
a year ago, or so.
So, how are we doing with the old “eat local challenge” concept that well-meaning folks trot out to promote local produce, usually in September, when eating locally is at its least challenging? Well, the bread was homemade and leavened with our now 12-year-old sourdough starter and all MN and ND flours; the bacon from MN-based Pastures A’Plenty pork belly cured in our own maple syrup and foreign salt; the mayo contained that Dunn County cress, Ridgeland eggs (Chicken Creek Ranch on county AA), Smude MN cold-pressed sunflower oil, and foreign salt and lemon juice; oven fries from our garden potatoes cooked in duck fat we rendered and more of the Smude oil; carrot slaw with local grower Kate Stout’s wonderful carrots, some of our garden shallots, Smude oil, our cider vinegar.
I would say we’ve met the challenge. I go through this list not to gloat about how localler-than-thou our diet is, but to illustrate the fact that local eating year-round is eminently doable, even here in the frozen north. You just keep a very local pantry, is all, and seek out your local producers. It’s not that hard. They’re not hiding, and actually want to be found, so they can sell you stuff! Co-ops of course are a great place to start in shopping local, and there are many farmers markets that keep going through the winter, as well.
None of this is anything new. I myself have made the point about a thousand times in various ways. But as I reboot Trout Caviar I’m embracing the perennial, roundabout, here-we-go-again nature of, well, nature, and seasonal eating, which expresses nature in a very intimate and, I hope, delicious way.
If you want to make watercress mayonnaise you could take as simple an approach as obtaining some watercress, mincing it well, and mixing it into prepared mayonnaise. I am not opposed to storebought mayo, in fact am on record as a Hellmann’s devotee for many uses (including eating it right off the spoon). But I think Hellmann’s has too strong a flavor profile, and would drown out the cress which, while very assertive when eaten straight, can get lost in a rich base like mayo. So a homemade mayo with a milder oil (sunflower, canola; probably not EVOO, or with only a little of it) is the best way to appreciate the tonic bite of springtime cress. For this particular one, made with the immersion blender, I more or less followed the method I found on this blog..
But I found that:
1) I had to add a fair amount of oil right at the beginning, just to get the blending started;
2) In the end, with 2 yolks to a cup of oil, it made a much stiffer mayo than I like; I’d try it next time with a whole egg and a yolk, or maybe just the whole egg. At any rate, it made a mayo that is NOT going to break. EVER.
Text and photographs copyright 2015 by Brett Laidlaw
Text and photographs copyright 2015 by Brett Laidlaw