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Cheap Eats:
Warm Beef and Watercress Salad

The Greek general Xenophon and the Persian King Xerxes ordered their soldiers to eat it to keep them healthy. Louis IX of France (St. Louis) found it so delightful that he placed it on a coat of arms. During the 14th-century, it had an important place on the menus at the courts of England's Richard II and France's Charles VI. And I just picked some up at my local grocery store.

Watercress, or Nasturtium officianale, is a member of the mustard family. It is native to Eurasia—the region of Asia Minor and the Mediterranean, more specifically. Despite the name, it is totally unrelated to the flower known as nasturtium (Tropaeolum majus), which is native to South and Central America and Mexico. (Though unrelated, which even a casual glance confirms, the two do share in common peppery-tasting leaves. It is my guess that the New World native was named nasturtium for the Old World herb that was equally peppery. In fact, nasturtiums, which are also used in salads, were sometimes called Indian cress.)

Watercress is famous for being somewhat ironic. It is peppery in taste, yet very refreshing. It was often used between courses at great meals, to cleanse the palate. Louis IX was enamored of it simply because, when overcome by thirst one day, with no water available, he was offered watercress, and found it so refreshing that he honored it by adding it, along with his royal fleur-de-lis, to the coat of arms of the French city of Vernon.

Watercress is not perhaps as widely used in the United States as it was—and in many places still is—in the Old World, but it may deserve a bit more attention, if for no other reason than its remarkable longevity as a popular salad green. In addition to health, the Greeks believed that eating watercress made one witty, while English herbalists of the 17th century recommended watercress soup to cleanse the blood in the spring or to help headaches.

Watercress is still considered a valuable spring tonic among herbalists, and watercress soup, in particular, is a popular item on spring menus across Europe. While it seems unlikely that watercress will add wit to your conversation, it is certainly healthful. A good source of vitamin C, it was a popular preventive for scurvy. Watercress also contains potassium, vitamin A, and several of the B vitamins. Anecdotally, many other medicinal traits have been attributed to the herb—but if all it does is give you an extra blast of vitamin C and spice up your menu, it doesn't need to do more.

Because of its usefulness in preventing scurvy, watercress made the crossing to the New World very early, and it has now spread throughout North America, growing even in Alaska. It grows in cool, flowing streams, or in the muddy shallows bordering streams. However, the watercress one sees in the store is "farm raised." (It is wise to obtain your watercress in this manner, because most of its composition is water, and it will contain whatever nasty things the water in which it is growing might contain, such as chemicals or germs from nearby animals.)

Because it easily takes root, you may only need to buy watercress occasionally. If you have more than you need, stick the remainder in a glass of water and put it in the sun. In a week or so, the stems will be sprouting little roots. Plant these newly sprouted cresses in rich soil, place in light shade, and keep well watered. In fact, to simulate natural growing conditions, you should set the pot in a dish of cool water, and change it daily. Harvest branchlets of watercress as needed, as garnishes or to add to sandwiches. Snipping the plant frequently actually encourages new growth. I have a large bouquet of watercress in my window right now, and am contemplating my next watercress recipe.

The recipe below comes from Vietnam. Contrast and balance are important elements in most Asian cooking, and salads similar to this, which combine warm and cool elements in one dish, are common throughout Southeast Asia. Enjoy.


Warm Beef and Watercress Salad

¾ lb. beef tenderloin, sirloin steak, or filet mignon

1 Tbs. green peppercorns, roughly chopped

4 cloves garlic, crushed

3 stems lemon grass (white part only), very finely sliced, or 1 slightly rounded tsp. finely grated lemon rind

3 Tbs. vegetable oil

¼ tsp. salt

⅓ tsp. ground black pepper

8 oz. watercress (about 1½ average bunches)

4 oz. cherry tomatoes

4 scallions, sliced

2 Tbs. lime juice

Cut the steak into thin slices. Combine the green peppercorns, garlic, lemon grass (or rind), 2 tablespoons oil, salt, and pepper in a bowl. Add the beef and mix well. Cover and allow to marinate, refrigerated, for 30 minutes.

Wash and drain the watercress. Remove sprigs from the tough stems, breaking up any sprigs that are large. Arrange the watercress on a serving platter. Slice the cherry tomatoes in half and place the halves around the edge of the watercress.

Heat the remaining 1 tablespoon of oil in a wok or frying pan until very hot. Add the beef and marinade mixture, and stir-fry quickly, until beef is just cooked. Add the scallions to the pan, mixing them in with the beef. Pile the cooked beef in the center of the watercress and sprinkle the lime juice over the top. Serve immediately.

Serves 2-3.


Notes:

Green peppercorns, which are simply unripe peppercorns, come one of two ways: in brine or freeze dried. Either is acceptable for this recipe. In brine may be slighly cheaper, while the freeze dried ones last longer, if you don't use them all at once. If you use freeze dried green peppercorns, simply add 1 tablespoon of dried peppercorns to a couple tablespoons of hot water, and let them sit for 5-10 minutes. Then drain, chop, and add to recipe as needed. The ones in brine need no preparation—but don't add the brine to the recipe.

Regarding lemon grass: While it is certainly more authentic, and is subtly different from grated lemon rind, it is not enough different to keep you from making this if you can't find it. Besides, the other flavors are strong enough to make it hard to tell which you've used.

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