Thursday, July 12, 2012

What do you do with sea beans?

A couple of years ago, while visiting friends and relatives in San Francisco, I first heard about sea beans. According to The Food Lover's Companion, sea beans are also known as salicornia, sea pickle, glasswort, or marsh samphire, and according to Margaret Wittenberg’s New Good Food, they are collected fresh during the summer from salt marshes and tidal waters along both the Pacific and Atlantic coasts. Fresh sea beans recently became available at our local Whole Foods Market, so after wondering about them for a long time, I finally got to taste them. Eaten raw by themselves or in a salad, sea beans are noticeably salty, with a slight fishiness; reading between the lines a bit in the “samphire” entry in The Food Lover’s Companion, it appears that both of these characteristics are enhanced on cooking: “When cooked, salicornia tends to taste quite salty and fishy.”

Not surprisingly, there is no entry for sea beans in my favorite flavor pairing book, The Flavor Bible, by Karen Page and Andrew Dornenburg, but because “salty and fishy” is a description that applies about equally well to anchovies, I looked at the anchovy pairings. Page and Dornenburg’s highest recommendations are for olive oil and garlic, with capers, Parmesan cheese, parsley, and pasta also strongly recommended, followed by red pepper flakes somewhat further down on their list. In fact, these are exactly the ingredients for the relatively simple recipe Midnight Pasta with Garlic, Anchovy, Capers and Red Pepper offered by The New York Times a few months ago. In the recipe given here, I simply substituted the sea beans for the anchovies. Also, the Times recipe calls for ½ pound spaghetti, and I substituted about the same amount of conchiglie, a large elbow-shaped pasta.

Page and Dornenburg’s top two anchovy-paired ingredients – olive oil and garlic – constitute the defining ingredients for the simple, classic Italian pasta sauce “aglio e olio.” Not surprisingly, then, the above recipe is not so different from that given in the Dishesfrommykitchen blog post for “Aglio e olio (with sea bean, asparagus and broccolini),” which also calls for olive oil, garlic, red chili flakes, Parmesan cheese and either parsley or basil. The primary difference between this dish and mine is that I didn’t include the other vegetables, allowing the sea bean flavor to come through more strongly.  Since I love anchovies, this seemed like a good idea; if you don’t, you might prefer the original version with the other vegetables added, although I must say that while the saltiness of the sea beans was quite pronounced, I found that the seafood notes took a distinct back seat.  In fact, my wife, who doesn't like anchovies, tasted the dish and rendered the verdict “not fishy.” On the whole, I found the dish really delicious.

Just as their flavor pairing book didn’t mention sea beans, neither did Dornenburg and Page’s wine-pairing book, What to Drink with What You Eat. Again, substituting “anchovies” for “sea beans,” I was led to recommendations of a rose or dry sherry as the first choice, followed by Muscadet or Sauvignon Blanc. As I was pondering this question – I have a 2010 Basa Verdejo Rueda, a Spanish wine described as “like Sauvignon Blanc in a white tuxedo” – I also happened to go to a wine tasting at Toast, one of my favorite local wine stores. There, I was introduced to Vallformosa Lavina Blanco, a deliciously crisp white wine that is highly recommended with seafood of all kinds. In the end, I had it with a glass of each. After careful consideration, I think the somewhat more acidic Rueda stood up to the saltiness of the sea beans and the red pepper flakes much better than the lighter Lavina Blanco did.

Conchiglie with sea beans, garlic, capers and red pepper


½ pound conchiglie or other pasta

3 Tbs extra virgin olive oil

4 cloves of garlic, chopped

1 small bunch (about 2 oz.) of sea beans, rinsed

1 Tbs capers, rinsed and chopped

½ tsp red pepper flakes

2 Tbs. chopped fresh parsely

Grated Parmesan cheese


1. Cook the pasta according to the package directions in salted water until al dente.

2. While the pasta is cooking, heat the olive oil in a skillet over medium heat. Add the garlic and cook about a minute. Then, stir in the sea beans, capers, and red pepper flakes and sauté briefly (less than a minute). Remove from heat.

3. Drain the pasta and return it to the pot. Stir in the sauce mixture, mix thoroughly, sprinkle on the parsely and top with grated Parmesan.

4. Serve immediately with a Sauvignon Blanc or other seafood-friendly white wine.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

A Most Entertaining Evening

On February 8, I attended an event at the Mark Twain House featuring Denis Horgan, a long-time columnist with the Hartford Courant who is now offering his thoughts on life, liberty, and the pursuit of whatever we pursue online. He has also turned his hand to fiction, and the event at the Mark Twain House included a reception beforehand with wine and some very nice munchies, and a book signing afterwards (the museum gift shop conveniently had copies of his latest short story collection Ninety-Eight Point Six...and Other Stories). I bought a copy that night and haven’t finished reading it yet, but based on the short story he read excerpts from – “The English Aisle,” which I have since read myself – I think I will really like the collection. I had expected the evening to consist mostly of Denis reading from one or more of his works, and I was initially a bit disappointed that it wasn’t that way, but my disappointment quickly abated. Instead, he gave a fascinating talk about his life (he was, for example, born in a taxi in Boston during a Thanksgiving snowstorm) and his somewhat complicated path to becoming a writer, a path that life seemed intent on deflecting him from (for example, during his long newspaper career, those in charge kept wanting him to edit and manage, and it took some persuasion on his part to be allowed to continue writing columns).

Among many other things, Denis discussed the motivation for – and obstacles to – what was originally intended as a novel but ultimately became his recent short story collection (he gives a more detailed account of this in the Preface of Ninety-Eight Point Six). Several of these stories deal with different aspects of identity, and the motivation for them was a real-life identity theft. As is often the case, the truth is stranger than fiction here, because the young woman whose identity was stolen had an extremely difficult time convincing anyone to take the problem seriously: the person who had stolen her identity hadn’t done anything bad with it – she got a job, paid her bills and filed her income taxes (this prompted a letter from the IRS to the original owner of the identity about the two conflicting tax returns she had filed). The story reminded me of an incident from a novel (I believe it was Peter Mayle’s Hotel Pastis, but I can’t find my copy just at the moment, so I’m not absolutely certain), where the protagonist’s significant other had had her credit card stolen, but he waited six months to report it because the thief was spending so much less than she was.

It is clear, both from the two stories of Horgan’s that I have read so far and from the things he talked about at the Mark Twain House, that his years in journalism have served him well, honing his eye for the details that convey so much about his characters. For example, in one of his stories, “The Sound of Shadows,” the main character (Patrick) is trying to straighten out his stolen identity after the IRS has called him about his duplicate tax filing (“Frankly, we don’t care who you are so long as you follow the rules, and the rules say one return from one person not two returns from one person or no returns from any person. Do you see that simple symmetry? It is elegant. Smooth. …”). One of the things he does is call the Social Security offices, where he is ultimately able to speak to an actual person, but it isn’t much help:

“No, you are just mistaken. Because it cannot happen, therefore it did not happen. That’s only logical, isn’t it? How can something happen that cannot happen? …”

This incident is particularly hilarious to me because my wife experienced almost exactly the same conversation when we lived in Switzerland, but in a very different context. We were guests of the university I was visiting, and they provided us with a superbly furnished apartment, one that included everything from bed linens (ironed and folded) to salt and pepper shakers. And a checklist. When the housing people stopped by to collect the checklist, my wife noted that the teaspoons didn’t match, as several of them were a different style from the others, with “SwissAir” stamped on the back. The housing guy was nearly speechless, able only to mumble over and over again, “This is not possible. It is not possible.” After a few moments, he was able to regain his composure enough to collect the offensively “impossible” SwissAir spoons, take them away, and replace them with a new, complete set of “possible” spoons.

As I said, I haven’t finished reading Denis Horgan’s collection of short stories yet, but the two samples I have read so far have left me howling with laughter in places, so I plan to finish it soon and will have more to say about it then.