Salicornia may be the world’s cutest garnish. I mean vegetable. I mean herb. Wait, what? The succulent, edible plant is formed of small, chubby stems that look like tiny green deer antlers. It calls out to be strung with miniature lights and ornaments, done up like a bonsai Christmas tree. It could be a cartoon prop on the undersea set of Bikini Bottom.
Salicornia goes by many names, including sea asparagus, sea beans, sea pickle, samphire and glasswort. It grows wild in salty marshes and mangroves in many parts of the world, but it has very specific requirements for growth in that it only grows in salty tidal areas. So depending on where you live, Salicornia either grows like a familiar weed or is the “WTF?” item you spy at the gourmet farm stand or the organic supermarket.
The plant of many names has many subspecies, but all varieties are halophytes, plants that thrive in salty conditions. The most common form of Salicornia, and the one you might have scratched your head over at the market is Salicornia europaea, or Salicornia maritima. One grows in Europe’s coastal marshes and the other in the U.S.’s, but they are both essentially the same plant.
“Salicornia is still an oddball thing for North Americans,” says Matthew Sicher, a specialty mushroom and exotic foods producer and purveyor who most recently foraged Salicornia on Cape May, New Jersey. He and his wife Jesse run Primordia Farm and sell their products, including Salicornia – he calls it sea bean – to wholesalers and at farmers’ markets. “It’s a hard sell at first,” he says, “so I start by giving out samples of the raw plant.” Once people have tried it, Sicher says seven out of 10 customers buy it again.
So assuming they’re not stringing lights and shiny ornaments on it, what exactly do people do with Salicornia?
“Sea bean – okay so it has like 500 different names – makes a terrific edible garnish,” says Chef Rick Moonen of Las Vegas’s RM Seafood and Top Chef Masters fame. “It has a great crunch and marine-like saltiness, so I pair it with something that can stand up to its strong qualities, like smoked salmon with thin-sliced onion.” When Moonen has it on hand in the kitchen, he often uses it in place of capers.
Sicher agrees. “It’s from the sea, so it complements food from the sea. I recommend to my clients that they toss it in with fish just before it’s finished cooking.” He also likes it as a substitute for a salty accent, say like mincing it up and using it in place of green olives in a potato salad.
Francesco Brutto is the executive chef at Venissa, a Michelin-starred restaurant on Mazzorbo, an island in the Venetian Lagoon – and the scene of my first encounter with Salicornia. The plant grows like mad on Mazzorbo, neighboring Burano and the surrounding lagoon islands, and Brutto forages it himself. He uses it in some fancy-schmancy ways, like, for example, a vacuum-cooked (Sous-vide) eggplant dish served with a wild blueberry purée and geranium leaves, and topped with wee little Salicornia branches, which, Brutto says, lend a “salty and crispy tone that’s almost explosive in the mouth.”
An interesting side-note to Salicornia in the Venetian Lagoon: The plant was once used in Venetian glassmaking, as it was burned to make soda-ash, a critical component to Venice’s clear, colorful glass, and part of the reason the industry flourished on the lagoon.
Salty. Crispy. Crunchy. Salty. The latter is the word to keep in mind when preparing dishes with Salicornia, cautions Moonen. Since our tongues are accustomed to green garnishes and veggies tasting well, green, Salicornia surprises with its salty punch. “If you’re adding sea beans to a recipe, hold off on adding salt until you’ve tossed them (the sea beans) into the mix,” Moonen says. “Otherwise you’re likely to be overwhelmed with saltiness.”
Sicher sells pint containers of Salicornia for about $5 each, and cautions that a little goes a long way. But it also has a surprisingly decent shelf- life. “You can keep a container in your fridge, and enjoy that salty crunchiness for at least a month,” he says. I can attest to that – I smuggled a baggie of it off the island with me and it stayed crispy for a few weeks. Brutto makes the most of his foraged Salicornia, which is a summer plant, by blanching and fermenting it so that he always has it on hand. He also makes a vibrantly green mayonnaise of parsley and Salicornia, which he serves over stuffed mussels.
Since I don’t live near the Venetian Lagoon, I don’t know when I’ll forage my own Salicornia again. I could try to grow it myself, but since countless plants have met their demise under my thumb – seriously, I’ve been known to kill even cactus – a plant the requires such specific conditions to grow is probably not the greenery for me. But next time I find myself in some salty, marshy area, instead of gazing out to the sea, I’m going to be hunting for the cute little salty garnish.