Cress, We Hardly Know You

ROB KASPER'S MARYLAND

April 21, 1996|By ROB KASPER

It doesn't have a trendy-sounding name. No "ougula" like arugula, or "dicchio" as in radicchio. But it is a green with a Maryland tradition. It is cress -- short for field cress -- a green that grows in our soil and is sold in some of our markets. It is a land-based relative of the better-known watercress.

Cress is a simple plant with leaves that spread out from its roots much like fingers spread from the palm of your hand.

I have been told that years ago, when certain Maryland towns celebrated the springtime return of herring to local streams by holding a community fish fry, cress was the green served with the fish.

Nowadays, herring-run celebrations are few, and cress is not exactly the state's most popular green. Wayne Shaff, an agricultural extension agent in Wicomico County and an avowed cress eater, said the state's cress crop has been getting smaller. Herbicides used to protect the summer corn crop are still in the ground when cress attempts to pop up in the spring, he said. The herbicides snuff the cress out like a weed.

Another factor contributing to the low profile of cress, Shaff said, is that some people don't like to bother with the multiple cooking sessions required to help cress lose its sometimes bitter flavor. In Shaff's opinion, "The more times you cook cress, the better it tastes."

On the popularity scale, cress trails kale and collards as well as a handful of other greens, by a considerable margin. That is what Bill Richardson told me. Richardson grows and sells greens through his family business, Richardson Chicken Farms Inc. of White Marsh.

He gave me a rundown on the greens-eating habits of Marylanders. Kale and collards run stem-to-stem for the title of top seller, then comes turnip greens, he said. Next is smooth kale, also known as rape, then mustard greens. Finally, there is cress.

Richardson spoke with me by telephone from Baltimore's Northeast Market, where he operates a produce stand. As he spoke, I could hear the hurly-burly of the market life in the background.

He talked about cooking techniques for cress, about the current cress crop, and simultaneously negotiated the sale of some tomatoes with a guy in the market.

His favorite way to cook cress, Richardson said, is to boil the leaves, "in as little water as possible for five to 10 minutes." Another way to handle cress, he said, is to "put some raw in a salad. It gives the salad a peppery taste."

On the late-March day I spoke with Richardson, the weather forecast was calling for snow flurries, and he was worrying about the cress plants on his Baltimore County farms. "This weather has been hard on greens," he said. Bursts of warm weather had encouraged the greens to grow, then the cold weather had come in and snapped off all the new growth.

Here it was, close to April, and the only cress he could get his hands on had been shipped in from South Carolina. But he was optimistic that there would be a local cress crop.

When I asked who buys cress at his market stand, Richardson replied that Southerners ask for cress, and so do some older, native Marylanders. But so far, the young folks who buy the fancy lettuces have not discovered it, he said.

Cress is somewhat hard to clean. As with spinach, the leaves have to be pulled from the roots. And then they have to be washed. These drawbacks, and cress' lack of celebrity, usually combine to keep the price well below that of better-known

greens.

Cress also has been known to appear at the dinner table with meats that make some folks uneasy. Pigs' feet, for instance, are frequent companions of cress.

I have never had cress with pigs' feet but I have enjoyed it with another Maryland delectable, muskrat.

Both the cress and muskrat were local, I was told by my hosts at that meal, Herb and Imogene Horton. I dined with them some years ago at their home in Mardela Springs.

The cress was steamed, and had a faintly sweet, slightly peppery flavor, which somewhat reminded me of steamed spinach.

The muskrat, or marsh rabbit, was baked. It didn't taste like chicken, as some folks claim. It tasted, well, unique. As I recall, I ate more cress than muskrat.

I have read that eating cress has nutritional benefits. Like many greens, cress is high in vitamins. And it has fiber. A nickname for cress is "scurvy cress." Years ago sailors ate cress to ward off scurvy.

Summing up, cress is an inexpensive, little-known Maryland green that prevents scurvy and goes well in salads and with furry entrees.

One more thing. While the accepted pronunciation of cress rhymes with yes, I prefer the alternate pronunciation sometimes heard on the Eastern Shore or in Baltimore's markets. That pronunication is "creases," as in "Gimme some of those creases, but hold the muskrat."

Pub Date: 4/21/96

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