Watercress salads were a fine dining staple before the Great Mediterranean Revolution. After decades of absence, it’s poised for a comeback.
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Four decades ago, a new and fancy boutique restaurant opened in Northampton and put forth a seemingly radical notion– they would serve salads after the entree course, not before. Everyone else was doing it wrong, or so they seemed to imply. The restaurant closed less than two years later. Here in America, you see, we don’t like businesses condescendingly offering to “educate” us. And we eat our salads up front, dammit. It might be a simple salad of mixed greens and vinaigrette… it might be a full-blown Caesar… or, for particularly elegant and important soirée in the early 1980’s, it might have been something like this– the tuxedo of salads:
Watercress Salad w/ Endive, Apples, Walnuts, & Roasted Grapes w/ Champagne-Walnut Vinaigrette
But the real reason that the upstart Continental restaurant tanked might have been its timing. As the 1980’s gave way to the ‘90’s, American fine dining sensibilities underwent a fundamental shift– Traditional French gastronomy suddenly went way out of style, and everything Mediterranean was suddenly in. The butter that had long accompanied our pre-dinner (and pre-Atkins) bread basket was replaced by olive oil; tarragon seemingly entered the herbal Witness Protection Program, replaced by basil, oregano, and the other Italian usual suspects. Barolo and Brunello di Montalcino elbowed their way onto the high end of our wine lists, a rarified section once monopolized by Bordeaux.
And arugula, it seems, replaced watercress.
It was as if it vanished from the face of the earth, or at least the marketplace. About six years ago I scored a large bag of it at the RESTAURANT DEPOT, but that was it. Until yesterday, that is. I was in my local Wegmans and casually asked a veteran produce guy about the last time he had seen watercress. “Funny you should ask,” he said with a smile. “We just started getting it back in.” And why should I or anyone else care?
“Watercress” is a pretty-sounding name, with connotations of doily-necked British royals, pinkies extended and nibbling crustless watercress sandwiches at tea time. “Arugula,” meanwhile, is one of those naturally comedic names (like “Kalamazoo”) and suggests a Model T horn or a cartoon sneeze. But both of these greens have a refreshing, peppery zing, and both combine nicely with “Spring Salad Mix” or other such mixes of small-leaf lettuces.
Watercress, I think, makes a better main ingredient in salads. If you see some in the store, I highly recommend that you give it a try… and please let us know where you found it!
Champagne Walnut Vinaigrette
Granny Smith Apple Slices
Roasted Red Seedless Grapes
CHAMPAGNE WALNUT VINAIGRETTE
Tiny dash of Dijon Mustard
Tiny dash of Homemade Mayonnaise
Salt & Pepper
ROASTED SEEDLESS GRAPES
Preheat oven to 250º. Carefully remove grapes from their stems, then wash and thoroughly dry them. Toss with a splash of grapeseed oil and spread over parchment paper on a baking sheet. Lightly salt, and then roast them until they just start to shrivel. Turn off heat and allow to rest in the oven as it cools. The finished product should ideally be halfway between a grape and a raisin-- wrinkled and slightly shrunken, but still juicy. (This works with all types of seedless grapes, but the red/purple/black grapes turn out prettier than the green varieties, which wax unattractively brownish in this process. Keep in mind that most raisins begin their lives as green grapes.)