Watercress is a dark green, leafy plant with fibrous stems and thick, round leaves. Its slightly spicy, bitter flavor often pairs well, in sandwiches, with dark breads and mustards. Cooks may also combine it with other bitter greens, bacon, and salty cheeses in salads. When sautéed, the bitterness reduces slightly and the greens may serve as a bed for grilled chicken or beef. Those choosing watercress for home use should typically inspect the leaves and stems, ensuring they have a good color. It is also usually wiser to pick home-grown or farm-grown greens over wild varieties.
Natives of the British Isles have been eating watercress for thousands of years. It grows in shallow stream beds where the water flows around it constantly, giving watercress its name. Though the ancients plucked it right out of the water, modern cooks should generally opt for greens available at farmers’ markets, grocery stores, and their own gardens. Wild varieties could carry parasites, like liver fluke.
The fresher this plant is, the better its flavor and texture. The leaves should be dark green, firm, and just a little tough. They should be free of yellow spots and feel dry, not slimy. The stems should also feel dry and slightly rough. Slippery yellow stems or slime on the leaves indicates that the watercress is starting to become stale. This slimy consistency doesn’t usually render the leaves inedible, but it does often ruin the flavor.
Even if watercress doesn’t appear slimy or yellow, consumers should also reject wilting leaves and limp stems. These factors don’t usually affect flavor, but they do mean that the leaves won’t stay fresh as long. Limp watercress also doesn’t usually have the same pleasant crunch as the fresh variety. Consumers should typically check the center of bunches to make sure there aren’t any bad leaves hiding there. These bad leaves give off gasses that can make all of the produce in the refrigerator spoil more quickly.
When cooks get this green home, it is important to prepare it before popping in the fridge. This generally ensures that the leaves stay fresh for a little longer and shortens prep time during cooking. Cooks should typically slice away the watercress stems and discard them. The leaves should be rinsed in cool water to remove soil and other contaminants. Consumers should gently dry the leaves with clean paper towels and slip them gently into sealable plastic bags for safekeeping. It is important not to crush or mash the leaves into the bags, but rather to do this like stuffing a delicate pillow, and keep the leaves lightly separated.