Foraging for Watercress

Tree buds are finally popping open and the hope of spring after a long, devastating winter is in the air. For many that translates to heaps of pollen and a headache. Yet those unaffected can start hunting for edible wild treats like ramps and spring nettle. Thanks to professional chefs, foragers and entrepreneurs Kyle Fiasconaro and Doug Weiler of Lost & Found Popup Restaurant, my outdoor April escapades now include foraging. Since ramps are a bit trendy, I will be searching for one of Long Island’s best-unknown forgeable super foods—watercress or Nasturtium officinale.

A leafy green of the mustard family that grows in cool fresh streams, watercress not only boasts more than 15 essential vitamins and minerals, it also helps reduce DNA damage to white blood cells. Hippocrates, the father of medicine who recognized the healing powers of food, recorded its healing properties. The story goes that his first hospital was next to a fresh water stream to ensure easy access to watercress. Greek soldiers drank a watercress tonic containing before battle, and Romans used it as a cure for baldness. Despite evidence of ancient use, our peppery friend suffered a decline in popularity during the last half century, due to the influx of more exotic foreign greens.

Watercress has a pungent and peppery flavor that many chefs use in salads, omelets and sandwiches or as a garnish for roasts. It goes especially well with citrus and salmon. Both the leaves and stems are edible, but watercress is highly perishable and will only last up to three days in your fridge.
When foraging for watercress avoid streams near large roadways or livestock pastures, due to the danger of the liver fluke parasite. Use a scissor to harvest the leaves off, leaving the roots intact to regrow. Be sure to wash your watercress thoroughly. You can even give it a bath in 6 percent vinegar to eliminate any pesty parasites. As with any other foraged food, don’t eat anything before first consulting a professional or field guide. Make sure you’re a welcome gatherer and, most importantly, gather sustainably: never wipe out an entire patch.

Stay tuned for some tips on how to identify wild watercress and a few ways to eat it.