Watercress Pesto: Go Wild!

As we continue our treks and climbs along the many scenic trails of America’s national park system, I become more and more certain of one thing:

If abandoned in the wilderness, I would die of starvation.

Even during our trip to Zion National Park—a well-populated park where there was absolutely no chance I’d be stranded on a trail without human contact for even an hour, let alone days—I realized why it’s a good plan to keep a stash of hiking snacks in my backpack.

watercress and basil
Photo: Casey Barber

Per Zion’s official hike descriptions, it was noted that hikers along the Kayenta-Pools and Riverside Walk trails might be able to see wild watercress growing among the hanging gardens, waterfalls, and weeping rocks on the banks of the Virgin River.

We walked the length of all of those trails. I saw nothing.

Zion National Park's Upper Pools hike
Photo: Casey Barber

Actually, I saw some stuff that looked like it might be spinach. I saw delicate, pale columbine clinging to the rounded bowl walls of the Lower Pool waterfall.

I saw blooming prickly pear and cholla cacti, orange globemallow, and yellow asters brightening the Watchman trail.

bighorn sheep in Zion National Park
Photo: Casey Barber

I saw a pair of bighorn sheep calmly munching on shrubs as we cruised into the park on the Zion-Mount Carmel Highway.

watercress pesto in pasta with ricotta and tomatoes
Photo: Casey Barber

And I saw a bunch of insanely confident rock squirrels who had no issues getting up in everyone’s grill on the Riverside Walk path, but my suburban eyes couldn’t pick out anything resembling cress.

Thus chastened, I returned home with dust on my hiking boots, too many photos as usual on my camera, and a taste for watercress on my tongue.

watercress pesto
Photo: Casey Barber

I’m also a notoriously bad basil grower (seriously, it hates me), so I’m always looking for ways to round out my meager clippings with more greenery.

There’s virtually no end to the herbs and greens you can combine to make pesto, but why not mix it up with some crispy cress?

watercress pesto in pasta with ricotta and tomatoes
Photo: Casey Barber

If you’re a master forager, by all means, go get some wild cress. Or grow your own!

I’ll stick with the hydroponic variety from the grocery store, which keeps the tender leaves fresh and unwilted for just a bit longer.

watercress pesto

If you still need ideas on how to use your pesto, try this quick, fresh pasta idea: sliced cherry tomatoes, fresh ricotta, lots of black pepper, and a round noodle such as mezze rigatoni, lumache, or large shells.

(Or serve it over chicken, shrimp, flaky white fish, or skirt or flank steak.)

watercress pesto

Watercress Pesto

Yield: 1 cup
Prep Time: 15 minutes
Total Time: 15 minutes

Watercress pesto shows off the peppery punch of this delicate wild green. Make it the same way as traditional pesto and serve as a sauce for pasta, over steak or fish, or in a grain bowl.


  • 1 bunch watercress
  • 1 1/2 ounces (about 1 packed cup) basil leaves
  • 1 large garlic clove, roughly chopped
  • 3 tablespoons pine nuts
  • 3 tablespoons finely grated Grana Padano or Pecorino Romano cheese
  • 1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper (to taste)
  • 1/4 teaspoon kosher salt, plus more to taste as needed
  • 1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil


  1. Pulse the watercress, basil, garlic, pine nuts, cheese, pepper, and salt together in the bowl of a food processor to make a coarse paste.
  2. Scrape down the sides of the bowl, then drizzle the olive oil into the food processor through the feed tube until all the oil is incorporated.
  3. Taste and add more salt and/or pepper if desired.
  4. Serve immediately or transfer to a lidded container.


Refrigerate for up to 1 week or freeze for up to 3 months.

Nutrition Information:
Yield: 4 Serving Size: 1
Amount Per Serving: Calories: 289Total Fat: 32gSaturated Fat: 4gTrans Fat: 0gUnsaturated Fat: 26gCholesterol: 1mgSodium: 154mgCarbohydrates: 1gFiber: 0gSugar: 0gProtein: 2g

The nutritional information above is computer-generated and only an estimate.

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