Michael van Straten
Michael van Straten

Watercress – The Best Bit-On-The-Side

I've never understood why all that watercress garnish finds its way back to the kitchens uneaten. Delicious, nutritious and a unique source of plant chemicals, this is the best ever bit-on-the-side, so eat every leaf.

Hippocrates described watercress and its medicinal values in 460 BC, he built the world's first hospital next to a stream flowing with pure spring water so that he could grow fresh watercress for his patients. The Greeks and the Romans believed watercress was a cure for madness, though taking it as a puree mixed with vinegar didn't do much for Nero. The watercress you eat today is identical in every respect to that eaten by Hippocrates, Nero and even Henry VIII.

Dr. Stephen Hecht, Professor of Cancer Prevention at the University of Minnesota, USA, has studied the importance of watercress for the prevention of lung cancer in smokers. The best way to avoid lung cancer is to stop smoking, but for those who can't, a large bunch of watercress every day will help. These peppery leaves contain a unique protective chemical, gluconasturtiin, only released by chewing or chopping.

Always wash watercress thoroughly in plenty of running water to remove any residual grit or bacteria. It makes great soup, wonderful sauce to go with fish, is delicious in salads and turns a mundane sandwich into a taste sensation.

Serves 2

I have to admit that I don't much like oysters – or any other shellfish for that matter. But I love cooking them as they're quick and easy and so many of my friends love them. Oysters may seem posh and pricy, but they really were the food of the poor. The best source of Zinc, some omega 3 fatty acids, protein and B vitamins and all for a very modest price in fishmongers and supermarkets.

I got this inspiration from a restaurant we visited in the outskirts of Amsterdam, where it was made with spinach. My wife ordered the soup, but they'd already run out – the restaurateur gave her a dozen oysters free as a consolation.

As soon as we got home, she set about creating her own variations. This is the best.

8 oysters
1 large handful watercress, woody stems removed
1 clove garlic, finely chopped
425ml/15fl oz semi-skimmed milk
1 tablespoon corn flour
2 tablespoons double cream

Open the oysters and put six of them into a blender or food processor with all their juices strained through a square of kitchen muslin to remove any fine grit.

Add the watercress and garlic and whizz until smooth.

Tip into a large saucepan. Pour in the milk and heat gently, but don't boil.

Mix the corn flour thoroughly with a little water and stir into the oyster mixture.

Simmer gently for 10 minutes, stirring to make sure there are no lumps.

Off the heat, add the cream and stir again.

Pour into two bowls. Float the extra oysters on top to serve.

A feast for fertility and the immune system, as this oozes zinc, selenium, folic acid, and lots of vitamins B and C.

Serves 4

Forget McDonalds or any other fast food emporium, these burgers are a world away from highly processed food. Putting the cheese in the middle of the burger gives it added succulence and the couscous makes it really moist. Lean minced beef is a good source of protein, iron, other minerals and B vitamins.

Even the most veg resistant child will munch on these with relish, hardly aware of the watercress.

75g/ 2oz couscous
450g/1 lb very lean minced beef
1 large handful watercress, all woody stems removed
4 tablespoons grated Emmental cheese
6 tablespoons olive oil
freshly ground black pepper

Put the couscous into a bowl and cover with 125ml/4 fl oz warm water.
Stir and set aside for at least 30 minutes, until all the liquid has been absorbed.
Tip in the beef, and watercress and mix thoroughly – hands are really best.
Douse with lots of black pepper.
Divide the mixture into eight small, flattened patties.

Sprinkle the cheese on four of them. Top with the other four patties, pressing them together until they're firm.

Heat the oil in a large frying pan and fry the burgers on each side until cooked right through – 10-15 mins.

Do not add salt as there is enough in the cheese.

Serves 2
Putting fruit in a salad is a brilliant idea. You get a whole range of nutrients from this recipe especially the protective anti-oxidants from the berries, vitamin C, folic acid and beta-carotene from the watercress and kidney protective phyto-chemicals from the asparagus. It looks gorgeous too – and this sweet dressing is delightfully different.

3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon white wine or cider vinegar
2 tablespoons runny honey
6 spears asparagus, woody ends removed
2 large handfuls watercress
110g/4 oz fresh raspberries

Firstly, make the dressing: Mix together the olive oil, vinegar and honey and whisk until well combined. Put into the fridge until needed.

Cut the asparagus into 2.5cm/1 in pieces and simmer in hot water until just tender – about 4 minutes. Plunge into cold water and drain. Pile the watercress into the bottom of two bowls. Mix in the asparagus. Top with the raspberries. Sprinkle over the dressing.

Serves two

Chicken, as everybody knows, is the most simple and easy thing to cook. It can be boring, however – but not with this sumptuous sauce.

Chicken is rich in protein, minerals, B vitamins and protective enzymes. Here, we add spice for the circulation, lemon zest for healthy arteries, tomato for protective lycopene and, of course, lots of watercress.

2 chicken breasts (organic if possible)
1 lemon, juiced and zest removed
1 small, hot chilli, seeds removed
1 celery stalk
1 red Romano pepper, stalk and seeds removed
Half a cucumber, peeled and seeds removed
1 large handful watercress, woody stems removed, chopped.
3 sprigs chopped mint
3 medium tomatoes cut into small chunks
6 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

Marinate the chicken in the lemon zest and juice and half the hot chilli and leave in the fridge for at least an hour.
Meanwhile, finely chop the rest of the chilli, celery, pepper and cucumber and put into a large bowl.
Tip in the watercress, mint and tomatoes. Sprinkle over half the olive oil and mix until well combined. Set aside.

Heat a griddle pan or non-stick frying pan, pour in the rest of the olive oil and heat gently if using a frying pan.

Take the chicken out of the marinade and griddle or sauté for about 10 minutes, turn over and cover with the rest of the salsa. Continue cooking until the juices run clear.

Serve with the salsa on the side.


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