If you live near or have visited salt water, especially of the marshy variety found near intracoastal waterways, you’ve probably walked past a big ol’ stand of Salicornia, also known as sea bean, sea asparagus, glasswort, picklewort or samphire.
This image comes from West Coast Seaweed (http://www.westcoastseaweed.com/)– a fantastic resource for all things Salicornia!
For those of us who don’t live immediately near a wild source, they can sometimes be found in specialty or Asian markets. If you live in Seattle, they can regularly be found during the summer at the “Foraged and Found” booths at almost every weekend Farmer’s Market (find yours here), for an incredibly reasonable $10.00/lb. I pick up 1/2 lb every other week or so, and it lasts me for a couple of dishes. Beats a four-hour drive to the likeliest nearby foraging spots.
These delightful little fellows come to the kitchen pre-seasoned. Since they grow so close to salt water, they’ve adapted to thrive on the stuff, and, for all intents and purposes, draw it up from the sand/soil. This lends the critters a fairly salty flavor, with definite overtones of minerals. They’re so salty that it’s a good idea to soak them for a while before using them in a recipe. Once soaked, they taste like string-bean pods or really tender asparagus like when it’s super-thin in Spring, and retain their crispiness if cooked.
The amazing thing about these guys is their perfect semi-salty versatility, especially considering the whole low-salt cuisine thing. If you cook with sea beans, you don’t need to add any salt to what you’re making! Properly soaked, 1/2 cup of sea beans contains about 70 mg of sodium, but the additional mineral content stretches that flavor and enhances the taste of whatever you’re making. All you need to do is add a few of them, finely minced, to any savory dish and they’ll add a delightful augmentation of flavor that precludes the need for any additional NaCl.
They’re really nice raw, in salads, but I prefer to cook them, either in small amounts as a salt replacement, or as a side dish, the same way I’d use asparagus. One good thing to do is to mix 1/4 cup sea beans with 1/4 cup sweet onions and cooked underneath a broiled steak seasoned with black pepper (no salt!); the juices from the steak seep down and cook the vegetables, and then cut the meat into bite-sized pieces so each fork-full of steak/sea beans/onions provides the perfect balance between umami/salty/sweet/tangy/juicy. Heck yeah!
Another good trick, especially nice on the grill, is to take some nice whitefish– cod, trout, catfish– and season it with a couple of twists of ground pepper, a squeeze of lemon, a pat of unsalted butter, and double-wrap it in foil with a 1/4 cup sea beans. Toss it on indirect heat for a good 15 minutes, take it off the heat, unwrap it and breathe in those amazing aromas. The littoral essences from the sea beans envelop the fish during the cooking process, bathing it in green, slightly briny delight. It is like eating cooked sashimi.
Finally, here’s a more formal version of a recipe I keep returning to every time I procure some of these guys. Note, once again, the lack of directly applied salt– the sea beans provide plenty. The actual recipe is super-easy to make, though it may require some wait-time while some of the ingredients soak.
Quinoa Sea Bean Salad
1 cup cooked quinoa, chilled overnight
1/2 cup firm tomatoes, diced
1/2 cup chopped sea beans, soaked overnight and rinsed to taste
1/2 cup extra-firm tofu, pressed and cubed, soaked for 1+ hours in juice of 1 lime
3 scallions, diced
2 cloves garlic, minced
*1/4 cup crumbled feta or gorgonzola cheese (leave this out or replace with fresh mozzarella or swiss for less sodium)
1 tbsp paprika
1 tbsp white pepper
1 tbsp cumin
1 tbsp flour
virgin olive oil
1. Remove the tofu from the lime and pat dry. Mix the flour, paprika, white pepper and cumin and toss the tofu in the mixture until well-coated.
2. Sweat the scallions and garlic on medium-low heat. Add 1 tsp of the olive oil and cook for ~1 minute, until soft but not yet golden.
3. Increase heat to medium-high. Add the tofu and stir frequently until scallions, garlic and tofu are all golden. Remove and set aside.
4. Mix the quinoa, tomatoes, sea beans, tofu mixture and olive oil and vinegar to taste.
That’s all there is to it. Eat some sea beans today!