Whenever I go home to Boston or visit relatives in Hong Kong, I'm reminded on how much watercress features into Chinese cuisine. Whether we're eating out or dining in, it was common to have a plate full of stir-fried watercress. Sometimes it would be simply dressed with a little garlic, rice wine, and soy sauce. Other times it would be stir-fried with pork or chicken. But in the US, watercress lacks the popularity of kale, spinach, arugula, and just about any other leafy green, even though it packs so many nutrients (potassium, vitamins A, C, and K, among others) in such a tiny package.
A couple of weeks ago, I attended a dinner at Chef's Club in Soho that aimed to showcase the versatility of watercress. B&W Quality Growers, which sponsored the event, gave us a quick rundown about types of watercress and how their watercress is grown in 8 states and follows the sun in sort of a migratory pattern, in Florida in the winter months and moving north as the temperatures get warmer. The growing process also results in negative water consumption (it only grows in flowing water), making it incredibly environmentally friendly.
The highlight of the evening was that everything in the East-meets-West meal was prepared by Ming Tsai in an open kitchen. Having grown up in Boston and seen the local legend cooking on PBS and the Food Network, it was pretty exciting to meet him and see him work his magic close up. And yes, he is as charismatic in person as he is on TV.
The dinner started off with a vodka cocktail flavored with watercress, ginger, and a wee bit of sambal; nothing was overpowering and you definitely taste the refreshing, slightly bitter flavor of the watercress. There were also watercress scallion pancakes (a nice take on traditional Chinese pancakes), a creamless watercress soup with honey-apple salsa, and a "crazy chicken" and sambal stir-fry on top of a bed of watercress and fried vermicelli noodles. The highlights of the evening for me, though, were the spicy pineapple pork belly stir-fried with watercress fried rice and incredibly buttery and slightly minty sous vide salmon with watercress.
I later told my mom about the meal and she said, "Of course. There's a ton of ways to cook with watercress. I have no idea why Americans don't really cook with it."
It's easy to grow, easy to cook with, and a nutritional powerhouse. And if enough people learn to cook with it, it may have the potential to be the next kale. In the coming weeks, as a B&W Quality Growers ambassador, I'll be experimenting with watercress recipes that go beyond just using it in a salad, so stay tuned!