From bog to bowl: Watercress inspires creamy soup
Watercress often goes unnoticed in the produce department at the grocery store, maybe because there's usually not much of it. Its scarcity could be the result of supply and demand. Unsure of how to use this delicate-looking green-leaf plant, not many shoppers purchase watercress.
Many people think watercress is served only in fussy little crustless sandwiches that are eaten only by the very refined and proper, one pinky finger in the air as they sip tea with one hand and, with the other hand, take dainty little bites of tea sandwiches, green and peppery watercress neatly tucked inside.
Watercress, a water-loving perennial herb, is often found along stream banks and bogs. It is now cultivated in beds that are flooded. This relative of the nasturtium has a pungent, spicy flavor and fragrance that make it ideal as an addition to soups, spreads, stir-fries and salads, and for use as sprouts. The zesty leaves of watercress can even be whipped into mashed potatoes and swirled into omelets, kneaded into biscuit dough and boiled into dumplings. You see, there are dozens of ways to enjoy watercress.
When you eat watercress, you're getting a good dose of calcium and vitamins A and C.
I'll admit I haven't used watercress for much other than smattering it into a bowl of fresh spinach and romaine and a few other vegetables, then tossing it all up with a light vinaigrette. But I've been reading Julia Child's book, "My Life in France." In one of the first cooking classes she taught in France, she made Potato, Leek and Watercress Soup, a classic French creation. With watercress in the grocery stores right now, I decided to make a pot of soup to take to my Simple, Good and Tasty book club meeting, where we would be discussing Child's book over a French-inspired potluck meal.
After researching multiple sources, I came up with a creamy, light green soup offering a wonderful harmony of flavors. Leeks, often used in French cooking, are more delicate and milder in taste than their cousins, onion and garlic. I used all three to create a marvelous depth of flavor.
After a sauté and some sweating, they are ready to be joined by diced potatoes for a short simmer in broth. At the last minute, fresh, zippy watercress is added, immediately wilting into the broth. The soup is pureed before serving and made just a little more sumptuous with the addition of whole milk.
Serve this creamy soup in small bowls before a spring dinner party to tease the taste buds of your guests, making them excited for what is to come. Make a pot of Potato, Leek and Watercress Soup a day or two before Easter, saving it to serve the day after Easter, sprinkled with finely chopped leftover ham.
In any case, don't ignore watercress in the store again. I'm on my way to the kitchen right now to make a tuna, avocado and watercress sandwich, with crusts still on the bread. It will be the kind that needs to be held with both hands. Nothing dainty for this hungry food writer.
Potato, Leek and Watercress Soup
2 large leeks, (white and light green parts only), well rinsed and thinly sliced
2 tablespoons butter
1 1/2 cups chopped onion (about 1 large onion)
2 cloves garlic, peeled
1 bay leaf
1 1/2 pounds potatoes, peeled and diced
2 cups hot chicken or vegetable broth
1 bunch watercress, tough stem ends removed, rinsed and patted dry (about 2 cups)
3/4 cup whole milk
1/4 teaspoon salt
Freshly ground black pepper to taste
Blue cheese for serving, optional
Cut the green tops and root ends from the leeks and discard. Cut the leeks lengthwise in half and soak in cold water to cover. Rinse, pat dry and slice thin. Set aside.
Melt butter in large, heavy pot. Add chopped onions and sauté over medium heat until soft and translucent, about 10 minutes. Add the leeks and sauté for a couple of minutes. Place cover on pot and continue to cook for about 10 minutes, until leeks are very soft.
Poke toothpick through garlic cloves and bay leaf to hold them together. Remove lid from pot. Add the garlic and bay leaf toothpick, diced potatoes and hot broth. Replace lid and simmer briskly for about 20 minutes, until the potatoes are very tender. Stir in watercress and continue to simmer for a few more minutes, until watercress is wilted and tender.
Remove toothpick from pot. Slide off the garlic and put back into the pot. Discard bay leaf and toothpick. Puree half of soup at a time in blender or food processor. Return to pot. Stir in milk. Season with salt and pepper. Serve hot. Offer blue cheese to sprinkle over servings of soup. Makes 6 cups soup.
Tips from the cook
--If you can't find watercress, feel free to substitute arugula. Spinach is another option, although it won't deliver the nice peppery flavor you will get from watercress and arugula.
--Flavors in this soup will be most developed if it is made and refrigerated for a day or two before serving.