Peppery salad plant

Succulent, peppery watercress

Watercress (Nasturtium officinale) is a sprawling much-branched, aquatic, perennial plant, with a low, creeping growth habit, with heart-shaped, bright green leaflets and white flowers. Roots grow from nodes where they touch the ground. It is really easy to grow, if you buy a bunch of watercress, just plonk one piece into a glass of water and within a few days it will have produced roots. You can also grow it from seed.
Ideally watercress should be grown in running water, but it survives well in a pond, planted in a pot submerged in the water,  as long as it is regularly sprayed with fresh water. Once a week is enough. Alternatively grow it in a pot sitting in another container full of water that is also regularly topped up. Watercress likes a humus-rich, fertile soil and full sun or partial shade.  Once plants are growing well remove any flower heads to promote leaf growth and prolong harvest.

Young shoots and leaves are eaten in salads where their delightfully peppery flavour adds bite and savour, they are also simply used as a garnish. And traditionally they are combined with succulent cool cucumber in dainty summer sandwiches. Watercress is high in vitamins A, B1, B2, C and E as well as calcium, copper, iron and magnesium, so its a great addition to the diet. The Vietnamese call this plant xa lach xoong, which means little lettuce, and they eat it fresh with other salad greens, and add it to soups just before serving. Watercress is also delicious fried with fish or pork.

Watercress grows easily in a container like this plastic bowl

or a polystyrene box

The following recipe is a delight at any time of the year and comes from my book Community Gardens which was co-written with Pam Vardy. Pam collected this and all the other recipes in the book, from the gardeners we interviewed. She then tested and refined the recipes.

Beef and Watercress salad
1⁄4 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon sugar
11⁄2 tablespoons rice vinegar
41⁄2 tablespoons water

In a clean jar, combine all ingredients for the dressing, replace lid and shake well until sugar is dissolved. Set aside.
3 cloves garlic, finely sliced
1 tablespoon fish sauce
11⁄2 teaspoons sugar
3 tablespoons vegetable oil
250 g fillet steak, thinly sliced
1 bunch watercress, washed and dried
1 large onion, finely sliced

In a bowl, combine 2 cloves garlic, fish sauce, 1 teaspoon sugar and 1 tablespoon oil. Add steak, mix well and marinate for 1 hour. Arrange watercress in a salad bowl and toss with a little of the prepared dressing. Heat remaining 2 tablespoons oil in a large non-stick frying pan or wok. Add onion, 1⁄2 teaspoon sugar and remaining clove of garlic. Stir-fry until fragrant. Add meat and marinade and stir-fry for 2 minutes. Serve at once on top of watercress. Can be served with a separate bowl of dipping sauce for added seasoning.
Serves 4.

This recipe is from my book Community Gardens: A celebration of the people, recipes and plants