Salty, substantial and satisfying -- these vegetables are a wonderful addition to many dishes. The botanical name is Salicornia, with several subspecies, but sea beans are known by many names: samphire, glasswort, pickleweed, pousse-pied, salicornia tips and sea asparagus. If anyone knows the various Asian names for them, I'd love to know! The term samphire is believed to be a corruption of the French name, herbe de Saint-Pierre, which means "St. Peter's Herb." I like the sound of samphire the best of all the names, myself. Salicornia is a genus of succulent, salt-tolerant plants which grow in salt marshes, on beaches and in mangrove swamps. It is native to Europe, the United States, south Asia and Sri Lanka. The ashes of these plants and of kelp were long used as a source of soda ash for glass and soapmaking until the 19th century.
I first came across sea beans at Uwajimaya ~ a fantastic Asian food supermarket in Seattle. "Waji's" is one of my main food stops on each city trip! But, I digress. More on Uwajimaya in a future blog. As you can see from the photo, the plants are rather coral-esque...growing in branched form. They can be eaten raw in a salad, where their crunchy, sharp-salty taste really pops. Sometimes I just snack on them by themselves. But, their flavor develops more nuance when quickly cooked as part of a stir-fry, or sauteed with a garlicky, black bean sauce or added to yakisoba noodles. Their briny pang offsets the sweet yakisoba sauce beautifully! And they are tender when cooked ~ not at all stringy. They complement fish dishes very well. Remember to reduce salt in any recipe in which you use them and then adjust as necessary when done.
They grow well here in the northwest and I seek them out on the coast and on Hood Canal. I hope you'll be able to procure some, either in a shop or in the wild and try them. They're available fresh from spring to fall. At other times of the year, you can find them pickled, but fresh is best, as always. Bet you'll be as addicted as I am!
I'll post a recipe I found on Epicurious, for Black Roasted Cod with Sea Beans and Oysters. It sounds divine and I'm going to make it soon!
More to come about sea vegetables and yummy recipes to try ...