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Watercress takes center stage in colorful, flavorful soup

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Whether Irish or not, as March 17 approaches, many home cooks start thinking green. Food coloring and sprinkles turn cookies and cupcakes into special treats for St. Patrick's Day. The more health-conscious create fruit salads with green grapes and kiwi or big bowls of bright tossed salads made of mixed fresh greens.

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This year I'm making soup - green soup.

An unlikely combination, watercress, peas and pears simmer together in a pot and magically produce a sublime, creamy green soup. If you haven't had an opportunity to try watercress, you are in for a delightful surprise.

Bittersweet and peppery, leafy sprigs of watercress have been eaten since ancient times. Although specific details about the nutritional value of the small green leaves growing in water along the edge of flowing rivers and streams was unknown at that time, people realized they felt better when they ate watercress. Hippocrates used the fresh green leaves to treat blood disorders. When cress was made part of their daily diet, Roman soldiers were in better condition. Persians were advised to feed watercress to their children to improve bodily growth.

Now we know the spicy green leaves are a nutrient-dense food rich with calcium, manganese and potassium. The leaves may be small, but they are packed with vitamins C, A and K. With so many nutritional benefits and so few calories, we would be wise to incorporate watercress into our meals every day. Many produce managers will tell you the demand is greater than the supply in grocery stores these days.

I recently watched Art Smith, former chef for Oprah Winfrey, prepare a salad on one of the morning news shows, tossing fresh watercress with arugula and roasted vegetables to create a healthful salad. I've been adding a handful to my morning smoothie. In England, dainty watercress sandwiches are served with tea. Fresh, crispy watercress leaves are a refreshing addition to any green salad.

Sweet peas and nutty, aromatic pears mellow out the peppery bite of watercress as they simmer together with chopped onions in water and white wine. After pureeing the cooked soup in the blender, it gets finished off with an addition of creamy liquid. Other than picking the watercress leaves from the stems (this would be a good job for children), the soup takes little time to prepare.

The creamy white liquid I use in this soup is coconut milk creamer. A friend told me he and his wife were still getting great satisfaction from their morning coffee despite the fact they made the switch from half-and-half to coconut milk creamer as their add-in. It was helping them reduce their daily intake of calories from fat. The next day I bought a carton. I tried to fool my husband when I poured his only cup of coffee of the day, replacing the half-and-half he adores with the non-dairy coconut milk creamer. He wasn't fooled. I've been stirring white coconut milk creamer into soups and sauces and think I may never use half-and-half again for these purposes. It works great, and don't worry, it doesn't taste like coconut.

Watercress, Pea and Pear Soup is lovely, velvety smooth and green. It is a soup that will be enjoyed by all, Irish or not.

Watercress, Pea and Pear Soup

1/2 cup onion, chopped

3 to 5 tablespoons water, for sautéing

1 1/2 cups chopped, peeled ripe pears

1 1/2 cups frozen peas

2 cups watercress leaves

1 cup white wine

2 cups water

1 dried bay leaf

1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon salt

1/8 teaspoon ground white pepper

1 cup coconut milk creamer

Fresh watercress leaves, for garnish

Heat 3 tablespoons water in a large-size saucepan over medium heat. Add chopped onion and cook until softened, about 5 minutes. If water evaporates, add more, 1 tablespoon at a time. Add pears, peas and watercress to pot. Reduce heat, cover pot and steam ingredients approximately 3 minutes.

Add wine, 2 cups water and bay leaf. Bring to a simmer. Cover pot and cook until pears are tender.

Remove bay leaf. Transfer mixture to a blender. Puree until smooth. Pour soup back into pot. Stir in coconut milk creamer. Season with salt and white pepper, to taste. Makes 4 1/2 to 5 cups soup.

Tips from the cook

--If you prefer to cook without alcohol, replace the wine with apple or pear juice.

--This soup can be served hot or chilled.

--Find coconut milk creamer in the dairy cooler or in the organic section of your grocery store. Coconut milk creamer can be replaced with half-and-half, if you prefer.

--I use white pepper in this soup to avoid little black specks dotting the pretty green soup. If you don't mind them, use ground black pepper.

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