Watercress, a mildly spicy green, was used as a garnish in England for many years in the early 20th century. From comic novelist P.G. Wodehouse:
[Speaking of one of his greatest characters, Psmith] “Psmith is the only thing in my literary career which was handed to me on a plate with watercress round it, thus enabling me to avoid the blood, sweat and tears inseparable from an author’s life.”
“If you had brought him the artistic temperament on a plate with a bit of watercress round it, he wouldn’t have recognized it.” Uneasy Money
“Albert, who seemed, on the evidence of a short but sufficient acquaintance, to be a lad who would not recognize the finer feelings if they were handed to him on a plate with watercress round them, promised to be invaluable.” A Damsel in Distress
“Bob’s the sort of man who wouldn’t catch a ball if you handed it to him on a plate, with watercress round it.” Mike: A Public School Story
Watercress also used to also be served for tea, with bread and butter. It sounds a bit plain, but raw watercress has a slight bite, so watercress sandwiches are actually quite tasty. One of my favorite watercress dishes, though, is Potato Watercress Soup. I like it with a heavy dose of nutmeg, to bring out the watercress’s pepperiness. There were a number of recipes for this soup floating around in the 1940s, thanks to a wealth of potatoes, and a push from the Ministry of War to get the public to use them. Watercress is fast-growing and fairly easy to cultivate, so it made a cheap and mildly peppery addition to dishes. In richer times, cream was often added at the end, but I’m not a huge fan of cream soups, so I don’t tend to add it. If you do want to add a splash of cream, do it at the end and check the seasoning.
The watercress season in the UK begins about now, but you can also get it in the US nearly year-round. These days, it’s often grown hydroponically, in other words, in water rather than in soil. If you do get it from the farmers’ market, it has a lot more flavor, but often has little snails and sand in it, so do be careful when you wash, dry and sort the watercress to look out for them. And yeah, don’t add them to soup!
Potato Watercress Soup with Nutmeg
4 to 6 Servings, depending on your serving size
1 tablespoon butter
2 shallots, minced
1 clove garlic, thinly sliced
1 Idaho potato, or other thick-skinned varietal, peeled and sliced on a mandolin
1 quart vegetable broth
1 whole nutmeg
1 splash lemon juice, or vinegar if lemons not available
1 1/2 bunches watercress, washed, dried and sliced thinly (reserve a few sprigs for garnish)
Heat the butter in a large pot and sweat the shallots in the pot. When they are almost cooked through, add the garlic and continue to cook. When the garlic is cooked, add the potatoes and broth and bring to a boil. Using a microplane, grate fresh nutmeg over the potato mixture, tasting it periodically to make sure you don’t add too much. Simmer the mixture until the potato slices are cooked through. When cooked through, add the salt and lemon juice, then finally the watercress, reserving a few leaves for garnish. Remove the pot from the stove, then pulse the soup mixture in a food processor, or using a stick blender, until smooth but with some texture. Serve topped with watercress sprigs. Make sure you’ve seasoned aggressively with the salt.