Recipe: Watercress and Walnut Salad with Goat Cheese Fritters

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As a child, M.F.K. Fisher was warned away from eating watercress, “because of the cows.” It grew alongside streams that ran through the pastures near her childhood home in California, and was, according to her grandmother, sure to carry germs. Perhaps that’s why, as an adult, Fisher celebrated the stuff in so many of her soups and salads.

“They like to call me Mary, Mary, quite contrary,” she once said.

For a long time, I sided with the contrary one, taking the stance that watercress, harvested from the wild, was a delectable thing. The distinctive radish-like snap, the brilliant green color and the devil-may-care spirit that went with it made watercress not only good to eat but downright exciting.

I used to think that anyone too fastidious to enjoy it was a wimp. Then, not long ago, I spoke with Jeremy Faber, who runs a wild-crafting business called “Foraged and Found Edibles,” and he took the side of Fisher’s Victorian grandmother.

“You should warn people,” he said, “not to harvest it themselves. The risk of E. coli is just too great; E. coli and salmonella.”

Really?

“Because of the cows,” he said, “and runoff from farms. I do know some safe places to harvest it, though. I gather it in spots where I know it’s not downstream from any pastureland.”

Readers who would gather watercress for themselves shall be therefore warned.

When I lived on San Juan Island, I found watercress growing beside a natural spring in one of the parks there. The spring was near the old lime kiln on the west side of the island, and my wife and I used to picnic there from time to time. I gathered the greens to brighten the sandwiches we brought with us. That place is nowhere near any cow fields, so I am still alive to tell about it.

When we moved to Bainbridge Island, I spotted watercress growing in a stream that runs through a park, but I was squeamish about gathering it because too many dogs went through the park every day, and I couldn’t be sure the cress was clean.

Fortunately, Faber and his associates sell watercress and other wild greens at Seattle neighborhood farmers markets. Good watercress is widely cultivated commercially, too. So it’s easy to find this peppery green without having to worry about cows or guess about dogs. Look for dark-green, field-grown watercress and avoid the pale, hydroponically grown varieties; they’re less flavorful, and the weak stems and leaves collapse when they’re exposed to any heat or dressing. (In most dishes that call for watercress, heat and dressing are essential components.)

Watercress hot, in the classic French potage cresson, finds the green puréed with potatoes, leeks and butter to make a soup that’s sometimes finished with egg yolks and cream. Various soups from the cuisines of Asia depend on watercress, too, to add a certain depth of flavor that could not come from anything else.

Watercress cold is the foundation for many fine salads; a simple vinaigrette composed of nothing more than red wine vinegar and good olive oil comes to life when it’s drizzled over the leaves of this green, requiring nothing more than a sprinkle of salt to remind us that salad is one of life’s greatest pleasures.

But watercress is perhaps best of all when heat and dressing are combined. I remember quite vividly the first time I ate watercress dressed in nothing more than the juices of a steak, hot off the grill. I was in a restaurant in San Francisco’s North Beach neighborhood, and the simple dish hit me like a revelation. The clean green served as the perfect foil to the unctuous umami factor of the meat. Every bite of steak prompted me to try another bite of the watercress and vice versa. Ultimately, the watercress wilted into the juices on the plate, and the two flavors were inextricably bound. So sometimes, when I make a salad with watercress, I like to include something hot.

Greg Atkinson is an instructor at the Seattle Culinary Academy. He can be reached at greg@northwestessentials.com. Steve Ringman is a Seattle Times staff photographer.

Recipe: Watercress and Walnut Salad with Goat Cheese Fritters

Serves 4

If M.F.K. Fisher were still with us, I’d make a salad like this one. For extra flavor, toast the walnuts in a 350-degree oven until they become aromatic, about 5 minutes.

For the goat cheese fritters

4 ounces soft, white goat cheese, cut into rounds

¼ cup flour

1 egg, lightly beaten with a tablespoon of water

¼ cup bread crumbs

¼ cup walnuts, finely chopped

Canola oil for frying

For the dressing

1 tablespoon sherry vinegar

3 tablespoons walnut oil

For the salad

1 large bunch of dark-green watercress, rinsed and spun dry

½ cup toasted walnuts

Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

1. To make the goat cheese fritters, line up three soup bowls. Put the flour in one, beat the eggs with the water in the second, and put the breadcrumbs and walnuts in the third bowl. Roll each piece of cheese in flour, shaking off the excess. Dip each flour-coated round of cheese into the egg mixture, then roll it in the breadcrumbs and walnuts to coat. The fritters may be prepared ahead up to this point and refrigerated for several hours or overnight.

2. When it’s time to serve the salad, heat about ½ inch of canola oil in a small sauté pan and fry the breaded cheese rounds until they are golden brown, about 2 minutes on each side.

3. While the cheese is frying, whisk the sherry vinegar and walnut oil together in a large salad bowl and toss in the watercress; season it to taste with salt and pepper and distribute the greens between 4 salad plates. Top each serving with walnuts and a hot goat cheese fritter, and serve at once.

2008, Greg Atkinson