Recipe: Spring greens showered with Vietnamese fish sauce, ginger, peppers and lime

Spicy Watercress Salad

by Brian Ricci

When I was a child, my mother would bring home bags upon bags of watercress each spring. They were gifts from one of her colleagues who cultivated watercress in his garden at home. Mom would gently rinse it and then clip the long tendrils, discarding the thicker, more fibrous base in preference for the young, tender tops. They would then find their way into a salad creation that evening, and then the next.

Freshly clipped watercress can taste of black pepper and chlorophyll. It can also have light citrus notes or sometimes smell of fresh chervil or tarragon. It contains multitudes! 

Spicy Watercress Salad with Vietnamese Fish Sauce, Lime, Cashews, Ginger and Chilies
Serves: 2 to 4

Ingredients
For the salad:

  • 3 bunches watercress—look for tendrils with no bruising or yellowness 
  • 2 limes, segmented
  • 1 large cucumber, peeled and cut lengthwise, then into thin half-moon shapes
  • Roughly 1/3 of a pound cashews—I prefer to toast and roughly chop them from raw
  • 15 sprigs of mint leaves, plucked
  • Salt and pepper to taste

For the dressing:

  • 1/2 cup fish sauce—Three Crabs brand is my
  • personal choice
  • 1 lime, juiced
  • 1/4 cup Sugar in the Raw
  • 1/4 cup water
  • 1 inch peeled ginger, grated fine—a microplane will do the trick
  • 1 clove garlic, microplaned like the ginger above
  • 1 long hot pepper, sliced lengthwise, deseeded and cut into a fine dice

Directions

  1. For the vinaigrette, combine all the ingredients and whisk. Allow to sit for 20 minutes and then taste. Adjust as you like with more sugar, lime juice or salt.
  2. For the salad, first trim the watercress sprigs with kitchen scissors to about 1½ lengths from the top—keep the remaining if you wish and make watercress soup or pesto. Plunge the tops into cold water and agitate. Then gently dry on towels. This can be done a day in advance.
  3. Toast your cashews in the oven at 375 F for about 15 minutes and look for a light, evenly browned color. Let them cool, then roughly chop them.
  4. Segment the lime by slicing the top and bottom off of the fruit. Then, cut off the peel, following the natural curves of the fruit. Remove as much of the white pith as possible. Then cut along the membranes that separate each segment, cutting at a slight angle inward along the membranes. Once you’ve cut along both sides of each segment, use the knife to loosen and remove each segment. This can be applied to pretty much all citrus, great and small.
  5. Assemble the salad by adding the watercress, cashews, cucumbers and lime segments in a large mixing bowl. Grab your mint and shred it with your fingers. Add the vinaigrette to taste and adjust with salt and pepper. Serve immediately.

Brian Ricci is a chef living and working in Philadelphia.