Fresh local watercress — a cousin to arugula, radish, wasabi and horseradish — has tiny, bright green leaves and packs a lively, pepper punch. Unlike the milder commercial watercress, grown hydroponically and available throughout the year, our local watercress has plenty of personality as a salad green and an herb.

Watercress, as its name suggests, is an aquatic plant, picked near clean, cold streams, creeks and shallow ponds. If you plan to forage for watercress, be careful about the location. Watercress has a tendency to grow in questionable habitats — in roadside ditches, city parks and irrigation canals where it can absorb contaminants such as pesticides or heavy metals. Better to buy it from a farmer, particularly an organic one.

Watercress is best and sweetest in the spring — warm weather makes the leaves more bitter and the stems tougher. Once cut, watercress will grow over the summer and can be harvested again in the fall. You’ll find it now at farmers markets and in several co-ops. Don’t wait.

When shopping for watercress, look for dark green, perky bunches, and avoid any that are yellowing, wilting or slimy.

Once home, treat it like an herb: Cut off some of the stem and store it in the refrigerator in a jar of water loosely covered in plastic. When you’re ready to use it, cut off the tough part of the stem and then chop the remaining stems to toss in with the leaves. (Because the plants are so spindly, it seems a shame to rely on only the leaves, and the stems are equally delicious.)

Fresh local watercress is terrific on its own as a salad with a sweet-rough dressing or featured in a tea sandwich spread generously with sweet butter. It’s a versatile, assertive vegetable, great with a variety of dishes.

• Scatter watercress on top of a simple cheese pizza or plain focaccia with plenty of good olive oil.

• Toss watercress in with buttered pasta and shredded Parmesan cheese.

• Garnish creamy soups of tomato, potato or mushroom with chopped watercress.

• Toss watercress in egg salad.

• Turn chopped watercress into scrambled eggs right before serving.

• Toss chopped watercress with roasted baby potatoes right before serving.

• Make a sauce of Greek yogurt, chopped watercress and smashed garlic to serve on grilled fish, steak or lamb. Serve this as a dip for vegetables or chips.

• Add watercress to stir-fries and sautés at the last minute, immediately before serving.

 

Beth Dooley is the author of “In Winter’s Kitchen.” Find her at bethdooleyskitchen.com.

Watercress and Pear Salad

Serves 4 to 6.

Note: This simple salad tosses fresh, local peppery watercress with the sweet, mellow flavor of late season Anjou pears. You might add a little bold, tangy cheese such as Gorgonzola or toasted, spiced nuts. But the idea of this combination is to allow the taste of the watercress to shine through. Serve this salad alongside grilled chicken, lamb or duck. From Beth Dooley.

• 1/4 c. chopped shallot

• 1 tsp. coarse Dijon mustard

• 2 tbsp. white wine vinegar

• 1 tsp. honey

• 1/3 c. extra-virgin olive oil

 8 oz. watercress (1 large bunch), thick stems trimmed

 2 ripe pears, cored, quartered and cut into wedges

Directions

In a medium bowl, whisk together the shallot, mustard, vinegar and honey, then whisk in the olive oil until the mixture is thick.

Place the watercress into a medium bowl and toss with just enough of the vinaigrette to lightly coat. Place the pears in a separate bowl and toss with any of the remaining vinaigrette to lightly coat. Arrange the pears on top of the watercress and serve right away.

Nutrition information per each of 6 servings:

Calories 155

Fat 12 g

Sodium 35 mg

Carbohydrates 12 g

Saturated fat 2 g

Total sugars 7 g

Protein 1 g

Cholesterol 0 mg

Dietary fiber 2 g

Exchanges per serving: ½ fruit, ½ carb, 2 ½ fat.