Marion Owen

Courtesy of MARION OWEN

A handful of cress, the modest vegetable that has been dubbed the No. 1 superfood.

Salad green that will impress.

Mix some lettuce, add some dress.

Stir it up, sit down and fress.

Banish cares and summer stress.

Every June, our family of seven drove from the suburbs of Tacoma, Washington, to our beach house near the sleepy town of Lakebay. Grammie and Grandpa often came to visit, which meant hot biscuits, gravy, salad, beans and deep-dish blackberry cobbler. 

We five kids loved cobbler. So much so that we didn’t mind the hours invested in picking blackberries from vines covered with large thorns. At the dinner table, we dutifully ate what was on our plates. Well, mostly. What we really wanted was dessert. Dinner was just a means to get there.

“Eat your greens,” Grannie said. “Then you can have dessert.” 

Unless you have your head in the sand, you know it’s a good idea to eat a rainbow of foods: green, leafy vegetables and colorful citrus fruits. Research continues to show their direct association with reducing cancer and chronic disease. In fact, we ought to be consuming multiple helpings of these foods each day. 

Now that our gardens and farmers markets are in full swing, we can enjoy a wide variety of fresh, locally grown vegetables, and soon, berries, currants, cherries and other fruits.

But which vegetables are best? Fads come and go as quickly as that kale in your fridge. One day it’s broccoli, the next cabbage. And, whether you’re standing in your garden or the produce aisle, how do you compare the benefits of vegetables versus fruits?

Researchers at William Paterson University in New Jersey have done all of us a big favor by producing a list of 41 “powerhouse fruits and vegetables” ranked by the amounts of 17 critical nutrients they contain. In a study published in the CDC journal “Preventing Chronic Disease,” the foods are scored by their content of fiber, potassium, protein, calcium, folate, vitamin B12, vitamin A, vitamin D and other nutrients, all considered important to public health.

What’s on top of the list? Watercress, long known as a superfood because it packs large amounts of a wide variety of these important substances, with a score of 100. The next five in the elite category: Chinese cabbage (91.99), Swiss chard (89.27), beet greens (87.08), spinach (86.43) and chicory (73.36). 

Fruits didn’t turn out to be terribly powerful. Highest on the list was the red pepper (41.26), followed by pumpkin (32.23), tomato (20.37) and lemon (18.72). In fact, of the six foods that the researchers considered and decided to leave off the list, four were fruits: raspberries, tangerines, cranberries and blueberries. (The other two were garlic and onions.)

To make the study’s “powerhouse” list, the researchers calculated each fruit or vegetable’s “nutrient density” score based on the percentage of one’s daily need for each nutrient the food provides. (The study assumed a 2,000 calorie per day diet and 100 grams of each food.) 

Why the relatively poor performance of berries? Berries, such as blueberries, are rich in phytochemicals; the scores are based on nutrients only.

Sometime around the year 1600, watercress was suggested (among other plants) by English military surgeon John Woodall as a remedy for scurvy. Then at some point, cress fell from grace and barely made it to luncheon plates as a garnish.

Slowly but surely, though, the food world has rediscovered cress. My grandmother served cress sandwiches, minus the crusts. In the United Kingdom, a watercress festival brings 15,000 visitors annually. 

With all the emphasis on kale in recent years, I applaud watercress’ new-found status as the queen of nutritional charts. It’s sort of like an ugly duckling story since cress is often viewed as nothing more than a weed. Cress, by the way, is one of the few plants that also thrive hydroponically.

Cress is easy to grow. Sow it directly in the soil or start a batch indoors. Germination happens in a matter of days. In fact, the seedlings grow so quickly, it’s possible to sprout them like radish and alfalfa seeds, and get multiple crops. 

Mixing edibles and flowers is all the rage right now, and Wrinkled Crinkled Crumpled Cress makes an ideal plant for borders and containers. While there are many kinds of watercress, I prefer Wrinkled Crinkled Crumpled Cress. I love its upright growth habit (5 to 7 inches tall) which makes it easy to cut for salads, sandwiches, wraps, and pesto — or, should I say, cress-to.

RECIPE FOR CRESS-TO 

Pesto is the Holy Grail of sauces, originating in the kitchens of Italy. You don’t need to use basil or olive oil to make fabulous pesto, though. 

4 packed cups of cress

2 to 6 garlic cloves

1/4 cup nutritional yeast (optional but adds a rich, nutty flavor)

1/2 cup slightly roasted walnuts or cashews

1 tbsp lemon juice (or to taste)

Salt to taste

Place all ingredients in a food processor and pulse to the consistency you like. Taste and adjust seasoning. Use pesto to jazz up fish, sandwiches, toasted bread, pasta, rice, appetizers and potato salads, and as a base for salad dressings. Store in the fridge or freezer.

From her roots in Missouri, Grammie brought a love for tending a garden and cooking from scratch to her new home in the Pacific Northwest. A large-chested woman and a quiet alcoholic (though I didn’t realize this until much later), she baked the flakiest biscuits ever — the perfect complement to a giant pot of pinto beans. But that’s another story.

Get Marion’s free Photo Tips PDF, a collection of her favorite photography tips, on her blog at MarionOwenAlaska.com. Connect with Marion: Facebook and Instagram or send an email to Marion at mygarden@alaska.net.

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