I was invited to friends’ for a wonderful Sunday lunch, and our first course was oysters on the half shell. The father of this household is a passionate cook, and whenever I’m invited, he stands at the stove wearing an apron, while his darling wife – a doctor – sits at the table with their three boys and guests. It’s quite a switch, almost unique in my French experience.
We began our meal with oysters on the half-shell. Our “chef” Arnaud placed them delicately on the table, and then set a bowl filled with a vivid green paste next to them. “Watercress pesto,” he said with a flicker of pride. “It’s for the oysters, instead of shallots and vinegar.”
I love oysters neat, with nothing but their own juices to bathe them. But given the look on Arnaud’s face, and the gorgeous color of his pesto, I had to give the combination a try. I dabbed some on the oyster and slurped it out of the shell. The combination of brine and watercress bite was good, very good.
While I still prefer oysters neat, the pesto was delicious, an eye-opening, palate-pleasing surprise. Arnaud generously shared his recipe, and the next day I picked up a bunch of watercress at the market, returned home and made the pesto. First I served it under grilled lamb chops that had been seasoned with piment d’Espelette and lemon zest. Then, I served it as a bed for a poached egg.
Both combinations were sublime, and I’ve added watercress pesto to my repertoire. I’ve found many ways to use it – it’s delicious with any roast fowl or meat, tossed with pasta, spread on garlic-rubbed toast and topped with a fresh tomato slice. What’s more, watercress is generally available much of the year….move over, basil!
PESTO DE CRESSON
4 cups watercress leaves (about ½ typical bunch) watercress (measure)
½ cup flat-leaf parsley leaves
2 shallots, minced, coarsely chopped
The zest from 1 lemon
1 clove garlic, green germ removed, coarsely chopped
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
Fine sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
1. Mince together the watercress and the parsley leaves, the shallots, lemon zest, and the garlic. Place in a bowl and immediately stir in the vinegar, then the oil. Season to taste. Cover and let sit for at least 30 minutes before serving.
About ¾ cup (180ml)
6 large eggs (or as many as you need)
2 tablespoons white vinegar
1. Fill a medium-sized saucepan 2/3 full of water. Add the 2 tablespoons white wine vinegar and bring the water to a boil over medium-high heat.
2. Line a plate with a cotton tea towel.
3. When the water is boiling merrily, you’ll notice that it boils more vigorously in parts of the pan than others, creating a sort of “vortex”. Break an egg into a small bowl, then slip it into one of the “vortex’s”, and let it poach for about 3 minutes, until the white is opaque. Carefully remove the egg with a slotted spoon and set it on the towel-lined plate. You can poach several eggs at once. Repeat until all the eggs are poached. Trim the white of the eggs so they look tidy.
To Assemble the Poached Eggs and Watercress Pesto:
Divide the pesto among six plates, making a small round of the pesto in the center of the plate. Set an egg on top. Season it with salt and pepper and a drizzle of extra-virgin olive oil. Garnish it with a watercress leaf. Serve immediately.