Watercress is the new black. Or rather, the new kale, broccoli or popeye spinach.
One of the universities in the US has attempted to provide a new classification system to assist and educate the public in sifting through the overload of information on which fruit and vegetables should be prioritised in the diet in order to best arm yourself against the risks of chronic disease. The study defined “powerhouse fruit and vegetables” as those which, on average, provide 10% or more of the daily value (per 100kcal) of 17 qualifying nutrients¹, and set out to identify the top ranking PFV based on nutrient density and bioavailability. The study is a somewhat useful tool to weave through the web of information out there, although it is based on nutrient availability only. It doesn’t, however, delve into the complementary elements which you may need to aid, or which inhibit, absorption of these nutrients or how some cooking methods may alter the nutrient composition, however that is another story and this is not a science lesson…
The result of the study is that 41 fruit and vegetables were classified as “powerhouse”. Surprisingly (to me) watercress was the number one PFV, followed by many of the usual green leafy suspects such as chinese cabbage, chard, spinach and other greens. Parsley and chives rocked in before kale on the list, and broccoli was not far behind it. I had actually expected broccoli to be higher up the list, but was not surprised about the leafy greens, other than watercress. Watercress occasionally makes an appearance as a garnish on my lunch if I am eating out, but I can’t remember ever buying it before. So, on my next shopping expedition, I duly purchased watercress and then tried to figure out what to do with it…
First I tasted it – peppery, delicate and bitter, a little bit like rocket. Definitely summer salad material, paired with fennel or seafood. I hadn’t thought this through very well. It was too cold for a salad, and I wanted something more substantial than a bit of watercress garnish on my sandwich or dinner plate, or wedged into an omelette or crepe. I looked at making watercress soup, but that sounded like summer to me and not the hearty winter meal I was after. I did also briefly contemplate making dumplings stuffed with watercress, but I didn’t have anything else Asian-inspired in my fridge which would go with the watercress. Finally, I settled on making the watercress into a dressing, inspired by this dressing on Bon Appetit, to serve with some stuffed capsicums (for the non-Aussies, peppers or paprika), which Barth had been wanting me to make for some time (I personally think they look a bit 80s dinner party, sitting up there with prawns and cocktail sauce – anyone agree?). Coincidentally, capsicums ranked as the highest, non-green vegetable on the powerhouse list.
As it turns out, I must be behind the times with my watercress knowledge. Apparently Hippocrates so believed in the healing properties of watercress that he built his hospital next to a river so he could grow watercress, the Greeks thought it brought wisdom and Francis Bacon claimed that women could retain their youthful bloom with it (note to self, buy more watercress). The things you learn from the SMH….
This recipe generously serves two adults for a main meal, with some leftover dressing (which I must say, goes very well on pasta or on a sandwich with egg and vegetables).
- 4 red capsicums (peppers/paprika)
- 1 brown onion, finely diced
- 1/2 cup pearled barley, rinsed
- 1 cup water
- 1 cardamom pod, crushed with the back of a knife
- 1 garlic clove
- 1/2 eggplant, diced in small cubes
- 6 flat mushrooms, diced in small cubes
- 1 tablespoon cumin
- 1/2 tablespoon smoked paprika
- 1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
- 1/2 teaspoon fennel seeds
- 1/4 teaspoon sea salt
- 1 bunch English spinach, washed and roughly chopped
- 1/2 bunch mint
- 1 tablespoon sumac
- 80g feta, crumbled
- 1 quarter preserved lemon, finely chopped
- 2 tablespoons crimson raisins
- Water and olive oil, for cooking
- 1 large bunch of watercress
- 1/2 bunch of mint
- 2 cloves garlic, peeled
- 2 heaped tablespoons tahini paste
- 1.5 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar
- 1/2 teaspoon sea salt
- 2 tablespoons water
- In a heavy bottomed saucepan, fry the onion in a splash of olive oil on medium heat until translucent. Add the pearl barley and stir for a minute, and then add a cup of water and the cardamom pod. Bring to the boil, and then leave to simmer for approx. 20 minutes until the barley is tender but firm. You want it to still have some bite, as it will finish cooking completely while it is steamed inside the capsicums. Once ready, remove from heat and let cool.
- While the pearl barley is cooking, fry the garlic in a splash of olive oil in a frypan over medium heat. After a minute, add the eggplants and mushrooms and cook until tender – this will take around 5 minutes. Add the cumin, paprika, cayenne pepper, fennel seeds and salt and stir. Add in the spinach and stir another minute until wilted. Remove from heat and let cool.
- Wash the capsicums and then slice off their tops and stalk – carefully remove the seeds from inside the capsicum. Keep the tops as you will use this as the “lid” to cook the stuffing.
- In a large bowl, mix together the cooked pearl barley, vegetables, mint, sumac, feta, preserved lemon and raisins. Divide the mixture into four, and then loosely stuff the capsicums. Put on the capsicum “lid” and put the capsicums upright in a large heavy bottomed saucepan (which is at least as high as the standing capsicums and for which you have a lid).
- Add water into the saucepan with the capsicums, until it reaches about 1cm up the side of the capsicum. Cover the saucepan with the lid, and simmer on low heat for around 35-45 minutes – check the capsicums from time to time to make sure there is still some water in the bottom of the pan and to see if they are ready (they will be ready when the capsicum looks shrivelled).
- Carefully remove from, discard the water and serve with the watercress dressing.
- Wash the watercress and mint, and then blanch them, together with the garlic for 30 seconds in a pot of boiling water. Drain and run under cold water to prevent them from cooking further. Dry the watercress and mint on a tea towel to remove all the moisture and roughly chop.
- Add the blanched garlic, watercress, mint and other dressing ingredients to a blender and blitz for about 30-60 seconds (depending on blender/food processor speed) until you have a lovely, creamy green sauce. Season to taste with a little more vinegar or salt, as you like.
1 For those interested, the powerhouse nutrients are: potassium, fiber, protein, calcium, iron, thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, folate, zinc, and vitamins A, B6, B12, C, D, E, and K