A Brooklyn winter may have you thinking more of diving into your pantry (or the nearest pub) rather than foraging for fresh fare, but there are still a few plants out there that are not only edible, but tasty. Wintercress, a cousin of arugula, is one of them.
Imagine arugula leaves, with their smaller lobes near the base and larger single lobe at the end of each leaf. Now imagine them slightly less tender than that cultivated crop, and waiting for you to find them anytime they are not buried under snow (which has been most of winter for the past couple of years).
Barbarea vulgaris a.k.a. wintercress leaves grow alternately on the branching stems and have no, or very few hairs. The upper leaves are small and stalkless where they attach to the stems, although you aren’t likely to see these at this time of year when the plants are ground-hugging rosettes.
The flowers, which appear in April and May in Brooklyn, have the four yellow petals that are a hallmark of plants in the Brassicaceae (mustard family).
Wintercress seeds form in slender, 2-chambered dry pods called siliques, with many seeds in each pod.
Where to Find Wintercress
In BK, a better question might be where not to find it. Wintercress grows in full sun and is especially fond of disturbed soils, in other words places near humans such as parks, abandoned lots, roadsides, and gardens.
Wintercress leaves becomes unpleasantly bitter once it flowers in the spring, so harvest them now during the colder months. Once the plants do flower, skip the leaves but harvest the edible flowers for salads.
How to Eat It
If you like arugula then you’ll be a fan of wintercress. I like it best combined with lettuce or other milder leafy greens in salads. Baby beet leaves are a good match for wintercress. Include some balsamic vinegar or a dollop of local honey in the dressing – a hint of sweetness turns the pungency of wintercress into something playfully light and pleasing.
You can also stir-fry wintercress with a little garlic and butter or oil until the greens are barely wilted. If straight up sauteed wintercress is too strongly flavored for you, try incorporating it into an omelet. Or mix it up with roasted root vegetables (again sweetness is a good balancer for wintercress, so sweet potatoes and parsnips are good matches).
Barbarea vulgaris is a non-native species that is considered an invasive weed. You don’t have to worry about endangering this species when you harvest it.
Wintercress Salad with Warm Beets and Honey-Balsamic Dressing
- 1 pound beets, washed and trimmed
- 1 quart wintercress leaves, washed
- 1 teaspoon local honey
- 1 teaspoon balsamic vinegar
- 1 teaspoon cider vinegar
- 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
- 1/2 teaspoon ground mustard powder or 3/4 teaspoon prepared mustard (a.k.a. the wet stuff that comes in a jar)
- Salt and pepper to taste
- Place the beets in a pot and cover with water. Bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce heat and simmer until beets are fork-tender (15 – 30 minutes depending on the size of the beets).
- Meanwhile wash the wintercress leaves and dry in a salad spinner or by rolling them up in a dishtowel. Tear into bite-size pieces.
- Whisk together the honey, balsamic and cider vinegars, and the mustard. Once those ingredients are fully blended, whisk in the oil, salt and pepper.
- Once the beets are cooked, peel them as soon as they are cooled enough to handle. Cut into slices or dice.
- Toss the beets with the dressing. Arrange the wintercress on plates. Pile the beet salad on top. Serve while the beets are still warm, or at room temperature.
Leda Meredith is the author of The Locavore’s Handbook: The Busy Person’s Guide to Eating Local on a Budget. She is the Gardening Program Coordinator for Adult Education at the New York Botanical Garden and an instructor specializing in edible and medicinal plants at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. Info on her many upcoming classes and events can be found on her blog at www.ledameredith.com