I'm not a big fan of bitter. Bitter food, bitter drinks, bitter people: not my thing. Except for greens. I adore bitter greens in their many forms: from arugula to puntarelle, chard to endive to radicchio, they make me happy. I think I developed a palate for bitter greens with all my time spent living in Italy. Their bracing flavor can stand up to a powerful dressing or sauce, including the many versions of a "Caesar" dressing that are so often paired with crisp, bitter greens. A slick of olive oil, the bite of garlic and pepper, the salty, umami zing of parmigiano cheese, cut through by the acid of citrus juice or vinegar...well, I'll stop here. Because I want to name-drop my favorite of all bitter greens: watercress. It's not so much straight-up bitter as it is peppery, spicy. Perhaps that's why I adore it. And its versatility.
Spring is the perfect season for watercress and its varietals (try upland cress, sold still attached to its roots, and just snip and sprinkle into salads or over grilled fish or meat). It's so much more than a simple accompaniment for the classic English tea sandwiches of "egg and cress": egg salad bound with mayonnaise and spread on white bread, topped with watercress, and cut into crustless triangles. Don't get me wrong, these sandwiches have their place, and I adore them as part of a classic English high tea, or as cocktail nibbles at spring soirees. But watercress in a salad breathes life into an overused mesclun mix. I love the bite and plump crispy leaves when tossed with fresh herbs in a salad. I particularly love the salad pictured here, which I make with roasted butternut squash cubes, goat cheese OR gorgonzola, pumpkin seeds, and pomegranate arils. I like to bring it together with a sweet-tart pomegranate vinaigrette.
One of my favorite dishes of one of my very favorite cuisines -- Vietnamese -- is shaking beef, a wonderful combination of vinegar- and soy-marinated beef fillet cubes cooked with onions and served on crispy watercress, which absorbs the sauce but doesn't wilt much (another benefit of this wonderful green). And speaking of benefits, watercress is an incredibly healthy green among greens, as well as among other fruits and vegetables. It boasts more calcium than milk, more vitamin C than an orange and more absorbable iron than spinach. It's rich in vitamins C, B1, B6, K, E, Iron, Calcium, Magnesium, Manganese, and Zinc. And it contains more potassium than apples, broccoli, and tomatoes. Not bad for a spring salad green!