Thursday, February 18, 2010

A Bit of Winter Green

It's become something of an annual tradition that on a sunny day in February, when the cabin fever is running high, I put the dogs in the car and head to a woods I know, a little ways south of the cities. A sweet little trout stream runs through this woods, and the stream is fed by a pretty spring, and in that spring lives the only green thing in the white winter woods (except for some tenacious moss): watercress.

Because cress grows in springs that bubble up from the earth at a fairly constant temperature year ‘round, the plants are protected in a sort of microclimate created by the 40-degree water. The plants dangle their fine white roots over the sandy bottom, but they take most of their
nourishment from the water itself—it’s Great Nature’s hydroponic salad garden. I carefully snip off a sackful of leaves, trying to leave the plants undisturbed—preserving the resource must be a key tenet of any successful forager. While a spring bursting with cress, or a forest floor covered in ramps, might look to be inexhaustible, I remind myself that it got that way because it has been left alone.

The spring is not bursting with cress at this time of year; the plants are holding steady, waiting for sympathetic signs from the season. I harvest sparingly, taking a few leaves here, a few there. When I'm finished I want the spring to look exactly as it did before I started picking.

Of course, I sample some leaves of cress while I’m picking, and that pungent, almost hot flavor, along with the brilliant green of it, acts as an absolute tonic to my winter-dulled senses. Then with a few servings of cress tucked away, the dogs and I take a wandering walk along the stream. They dash back and forth from bank to bank, kicking up a splashy ruckus. I’ll try to find a quiet pool to peer into, try to spot some trout. Opening day of Minnesota’s trout season is still weeks away, but a guy can dream….

This stream usually runs thin over sand and graveled riffles, only deepening in corner pools where the current digs into the bank, but this year I found I couldn't cross in the expected places, wearing only calf-high boots--beavers had built two dams a couple hundred yards apart. That extra depth could make for good fishing, for a while, though the dams might not survive the spring floods that often scour a narrow valley stream like this.

It was a great day to be out. I wandered from the path and had a pulse-raising trudge through knee-deep snow--should have brought the snowshoes--soaked up a good dose of vitamin D in sunshine that is strong and hot on a calm clear afternoon now.

The cress we use judiciously, as these winter leaves are especially pungent. Last night we tucked a few leaves into extraordinary fish tacos, local as hell, and more details on which to follow.

A fine weekend to all.


Text and photos copyright 2010 by Brett Laidlaw


Sharon P said...

Lovely photos and words, Brett. Thanks for taking us out for a little glimpse of spring to come!

Charles Leck said...

Brett, Anne and I spent the day yesterday (Saturday)selling lamb at Traditional Foods of MN. Have you been there yet? It's quite a venture and we're hoping they'll be successful. They have a little web page you can find by googling them and I wrote about them on my blog today:

Loved reading about your dogs. Hope you can meet our black lab, Jasper some day.

Charlie Leck

Trout Caviar said...

Thanks, Sharon--it was truly my pleasure.

Hi Charlie: I visited the Traditional Foods Warehouse for the first time a couple of weeks ago--there's a lot of energy, and good stuff to eat, there. Alvin Schlangen, another Midtown vendor, has been very involved with that.

I'd love to meet Jasper, and introduce him to Annabel and Lily!

Best~ Brett

Sylvie said...

I love watercress!

I always thought they would not be winter hardy in harsher climates - like yours. I wonder if it's a different species or strain. They definitively like freedom. I tried to grow some in captivity one year, and they fairly languished.

Doesn't it feel like a small miracle finding those green edibles when snow is on the ground?

Looking forward to hearing more about those fish tacos.

Dave said...

I always love it when I stumble upon watercress when I flyfish the Southeast streams. You have me missing trout fishing but it will be short lived as I will be fishing for snook and redfish in a couple of days.

Trout Caviar said...

Hi Sylvie: There probably are different strains of cress. I know some of the culivated cress I see in the stores looks quite different from the wild stuff I pick. Our wild cress is very cold hardy, and the springs it grows in create a micro-climate. In mild winters, I've seen cress in January as robust as in June; this year has NOT been mild, and all the green stuff was actually under water. Taco report coming right up!

Hello Dave: Snook, redfish...sounds like you're headed for the salt? Have fun! I may get out to wet a (chilly) line once Wisconsin's early season opens next week.


Wendy Berrell said...

Heck of a good day there. I see a lot of watercress. I should eat it. I regulary eat bergamot and mint found streamside, but haven't tried cress yet. Will do. Thanks for the story.

el said...

Catharine's farm is steps away from the Kinnickkinnick and also steps away from trout- and watercress-fishing, FYI. Just to give you more incentive. And: it's only 30 mins. outside of St. Paul!

Hal said...

...and speaking of the Kinnickinnic and watercress - I visited one of its small spring fed tributaries (Kelly Creek) a few weeks ago and did much the same. You all might enjoy my photo journal entry for that morning: Hal's Photo Journal - Kelly Creek

Brett, I've been enjoyed discovering your blog - are you the author of the story "Rush River" that I saw in Gray's Sporting Journal some years ago?

Trout Caviar said...

Hey, Wendy: I'll bet you do see a lot of watercress. A couple of my favorite cress springs are in the Whitewater area. Grilled or sautéed trout served over a bed of cress is one of my ritual spring meals.

I love it when I walk through a patch of mint along the stream without noticing it, and then am enveloped in that smell! The mint in my garden is transplanted wild mint from along the Kinnickinnic.

El, from Mala's description I have a pretty good idea where Catharine's place is. She's near the smaller South Fork of the Kinnickinnic. TU and the DNR did a lot of habitat work there a couple of years ago, stabilized the banks to quicken the flow and deepen the channel. It's pretty small for fly fishing, but man, the cress loves that cold little stream! It's a freekin' watercress preserve.

Hal, I really like your photo journal, and the words, too. The Kinnickinnic River is very dear to my heart--esp. the upper, which is where I really learned to fish. The whole Kinni watershed is magic, in spite of the developments popping up every year.

Re the Gray's story: You have one good memory! That was indeed my work.

Cheers, all~ Brett

el said...

Yep, she's ON that branch, and the work done by the DNR is across the road. It can be a bit of a mucky trek but it's a nice fun place to be. Sigh. The girl and I are reading Ingalls' On the Banks of Plum Creek and are equating their house to our house (as we likewise have a creek behind us) but there is no way in hell I will ever eat anything out of it, especially her. Such is the pity. Catharine's cold-running crick though well yeah.

Hal said...

Thanks Brett, nice to make the connection. ~ Hal