In my somewhat-adult life, I’ve become a bit of a salad snob. I have never ever liked eating a leaf of iceberg or romaine. I refused to eat salad because it always consisted of limp lettuce, sad, squishy tomatoes, and less-than-crisp cucumbers. As such, I didn’t really give salad the real college try until grad school. I would choke down spinach salads in earlier years, sure. But only at the dorm salad bar to try to balance out the activities from the night before.
It wasn’t until relatively recently that I discovered alternative greens. Peppery arugula, robust kale, and bitter watercress. Then, the salad world opened up. Bright herbs, salty cheese, tangy dressings—I changed my tune. (especially after this wonderful post from Amanda. I needed a starter guide to house salads!) Speaking of great salads, we’ve got a gem right here!
Contrasting crunchy and chewy textures, sweet and sour cherries, and my favorite fresh herbs, basil and mint, torn up and tossed with the greens. This salad has become a staple. One of my favorite parts? The watercress! It’s a green that’s so earthy and bitter; it has a big presence but maintains an easy-eating daintiness. In the spirit of appreciating bitter, I thought we’d chat again about a topic that I spent two whole years of life on (hello thesis!). Bitter taste. It’s actually the most interesting of the basic tastes, in my opinion.
Bitter is a taste that is classically thought to have evolved in order to avoid toxins in the environment. It makes sense then, that plants would evolve to take on a bitter flavor for longer survival. This means that there are plenty of sources of bitter out there. Bitter is desirable in a few foods like coffee, beer, and chocolate, but overall, it is avoided like the plague.
Bitter has a very complex path from your food to your brain. First, the food dissolves in the saliva. Once in the saliva, it gets carried to taste receptor cells (I’m not kidding, that’s really how they’re referred to in the scientific field). The taste receptor cells are located within the taste buds. The taste buds are shaped a lot like onions with a small opening at the top called the taste pore. There are four different types of taste buds, actually, and each plays a different role in tasting.
Bitter receptors on taste receptor cells have 25 different genes on 3 different chromosomes. In comparison, sweet and savory only have one for each. Basically, that means that we can detect many more types of compounds in foods as bitter that are shaped very differently from each other. On the other hand, things we recognize as sweet all have very similar structures to each other. It’s too bad really…I wish more things tasted like candy! From the taste receptors, the bitter signal moves through the central nervous system to the brain which registers it as bitter.
As an interesting fun fact, other primates have additional genes that code for bitter receptors. Those extra genes have become more of a wild card in humans. This is likely due to the fact that we have evolved due to cooking that reduces some of the toxins in food sources.
When you’re younger, bitter is even more pronounced than when you’re older. Taste buds are renewed constantly, but less and less are produced as you grow older. A big reason for this is because younger people had less experience and needed more indication as to which sources of food were harmful. It also explains why those brussels sprouts were so much more repulsive when your parents made you sit at the dinner table until you finished them and why coffee becomes something you appreciate when you’re older. Parents: keep this in mind, and take it easy on your kids!
So now that we’re all excited about bitter taste, let’s dig into this salad! If you can’t find watercress (it can be elusive), you could switch in baby kale or arugula, though you will miss some of the magic that watercress brings to the table! Bonus: enjoy watercress the next day with this toast recipe…and stay for the rosé wine pick.
Watercress and Farro salad with Burrata, Basil, and Mint
Serves 2-3 as a meal, 4 as a side salad
Adapted from Love & Lemons
1 cup uncooked farro
2 cups watercress
2 medium-large carrots, peeled and chopped (about ¾ cup)
1 cup peas (either fresh and blanched or frozen and steamed)
1 cup torn basil leaves
½ cup mint leaves
⅓ cup dried tart cherries (sub cranberries if you can’t find, but you will miss out on some of the tartness in the salad)
¼ cup sliced almonds
1 ball burrata
Salt and Pepper
1 tablespoon chopped chives for serving (optional)
- Combine the farro with 3 cups of salted water in a medium saucepan. Bring to a low boil, stir, and cook for 15-20 minutes until al dente. Drain and set aside to cool.
- Toss the watercress with the basil and mint in a large bowl. Add the carrots, peas, cherries, and almonds to the bowl—toss to mix. Once the farro has cooled a little bit, add it to the bowl and toss again. Let sit for 10 minutes to allow the flavors to come out.
- Place the burrata in the center of the bowl. Top with a big glug of olive oil and juice from half of the lemon. Add several cracks of black pepper and a generous sprinkling of sea salt. Finish with the chives.
- To serve, cut into the burrata and divide into several pieces. Toss together. Taste and add more salt/pepper or lemon juice from the other lemon half depending on tastes.
- This salad keeps pretty well for the next day, so it makes for a great work lunch.