samphire, sea asparagus, glasswort, sea pickle
What is it?
Not every vegetable has the honor of being named after a saint. But humble Salicornia maritima is one of the lucky few. Originally named samphire, or “sampiere” after St. Pierre, the patron saint of fishermen, many seafarers put this striking, unusual salty green succulent to use in treating scurvy, the great scourge of sailors.
Long prized by foragers, who harvested them from beds in shallow coastal waters and inland alkaline marshes, sea beans have recently become more widely appreciated. Nowadays, you’ll find them at farmers’ markets as well as specialty grocers.
Sea beans are beloved for their salty, slightly grassy taste (thus the comparison to beans and asparagus) as well as their crisp, snappy bite. This briny flavor makes them a beautiful accompaniment to seafood of all types. Sea beans can be served raw, requiring little more than the addition of a vinaigrette. Or you can blanch them quickly, no more than a minute or two, so that they maintain their crisp-tender texture.
Other preparations include stir-frying and pickling. Deep-frying them in tempura batter makes for an addictive, salty treat that gives popcorn a run for its money.
How to choose
When choosing sea beans, look for stalks that are green, never red, which can denote woodiness. They should be no longer than 4 inches; any longer, and the stems become fibrous. You’ll find the most tender sea beans during their peak season from May to September.
How to store
Because sea beans grow in tidal seabeds and salty marshes, they require thorough cleaning to remove the grit that clings to them. Soaking the beans in cold water is a great way to rid them of their sand. As their delicate appearance suggests, sea beans have a relatively short shelf life and don’t weather transport well. Luckily, they can be found naturally in coastal waters the world over. Store them wrapped in a damp paper towel in a ziptop bag in the refrigerator for no more than a week.
The crunchy-briny sea beans and mild daikon in this light yet intensely flavored Asian-style salad are a perfect accompaniment to the crisp salmon skin.