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.

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