- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 29, 2007

We all love surprises, and that’s one thing gardening and cooking have in common. An herb might be around for thousands of years but unknown to the gardener or cook. Once it’s discovered, the process of growing and using it in the kitchen can be wondrous.

I’ve spent the past two years writing about more common herbs, and now it’s time to explore something that’s rare for some gardeners but prized by others. It’s called garden cress (Lepidium sativum), but it also is known as pepper cress, peppergrass and mustard. From the same family as broccoli (Brassicaceae), garden cress offers a spicy flavor that is perfect in salads but can be added to many dishes.

Garden cress is a cool-weather green that germinates and grows quickly. Small plants can be harvested in just two weeks.

Cress will grow in full sun to part shade and is best suited to receiving morning sun and afternoon shade. In the summer, cress should be protected from the hot afternoon sun by being planted under bigger plants, such as tomatoes.

When the plant is exposed to hot temperatures, it can go to seed and become bitter and inedible. Plant it in good, well-drained soil and give it plenty of water. Plants that are allowed to dry out will become bitter faster. Cress should be grown like other greens, with a new crop planted every couple of weeks to keep the harvest coming.

Another fun way to grow cool-weather greens such as cress is to use a method called intercropping. For this, a group of seeds of leafy greens are mixed and sowed together in the same bed. They will sprout and eventually cover every inch of ground.

Bits thinned out can make a tender addition to salads, and after three or four weeks, the whole bed can be harvested for many incredible salads filled with diverse ingredients. One such mix could include leaf lettuce, garden cress, arugula, corn salad and salad burnet. All of these plants enjoy the same conditions: cool weather, plenty of water and quick growing conditions.

Another example pairs radishes with the cress. Both are directly sowed into the garden. The cress will germinate first, followed closely by the radishes. Gardeners can harvest the cress little by little. Each picking opens up more space for the radishes to grow and aerates the soil as the cress plants are pulled.

For the very first crops, start some seeds indoors to be planted outside a few weeks before the last frost of the season. Cress can take a mild dose of frost and will love its time in the cool-weather garden.

Another place it thrives is on the windowsill. The seeds germinate with such ease and grow so quickly that the seedlings can be snipped with scissors and added to salads. The plants will continue to produce new leaves for more harvests.

Out in the garden, continue harvesting until the garden cress plant begins to flower. Once that happens, remove the crop and start again.

Cress is also the perfect crop for growing in containers around the kitchen door, where the fresh, peppery leaves can be picked for recipes. One advantage to growing in containers is the ability to move the pot to a better location as the summer sun progresses. Plant a group of herbs in a couple of pots and keep them close to the house for great summer meals.

Like arugula, cress is bothered by one pest: the flea beetle. Although it’s rarely a terminal affliction, the leaves will sport perfectly round holes inflicted by the beetle. I never bother to try to foil the flea beetle because I don’t mind the holey leaves.

There are two ways to deal with the beetles organically. Covering young plants with a floating row cover or planting something flea beetles enjoy more than cress — radishes, for example — can protect the garden cress. A floating row cover is a spun-bound, light, translucent fabric available at most garden centers. The covers are so light that the plants hold up the material.

There are different varieties of cress, and each has its own virtues. Some have curled leaves, others have broad leaves, and still another is a golden cress that is harvested as a small sprout.

In the kitchen, cress is best added fresh to recipes and works well with egg dishes, salads and sandwiches. Try roast beef, some sour cream, creamy horseradish sauce and cress on good bread for a wonderful treat. Once you discover garden cress, you’ll find a multitude of uses for it, and it probably will find a place on your windowsill each winter once you become addicted to its unique fresh taste.

Fresh cress and potato salad

This is a great summer salad with grilled chicken or fish.

1½ pounds small potatoes, unpeeled

Salt

Water

1 large ripe avocado, pit removed and flesh sliced

1 carrot, peeled and sliced

3 bunches garden cress (about ½ cup) or to taste, shredded

1 clove garlic, minced

4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

Juice of 1 to 2 lemons

Pepper

Boil potatoes in salted water until fork tender. Cut into quarters.

In a bowl, combine avocado slices, carrot, potato quarters, garden cress, garlic and olive oil, and season to taste with lemon juice and salt and pepper. Makes 4 servings.

Cream cheese cress wraps

12 ounces cream cheese

6 tablespoons mayonnaise

6 10-inch tortillas

12 very thin slices of prosciutto

1 cup (12 to 18 slices) roasted red pepper strips

1 bunch garden cress, shredded (about 1 cup)

Mix cream cheese and mayonnaise and spread in a layer over tortillas. (Leftover cream cheese is delicious on just about any sandwich.) Lay two slices of prosciutto on each. Add two or three slices of red pepper. Add a generous sprinkling of cress.

Roll up and serve whole or cut into 3/4-inch-thick slices to make hors d’oeuvres. Makes 6 to 8 servings as an appetizer or 3 to 6 servings as an entree sandwich.

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