Monday, March 2, 2009

samphire, glasswort, salicornia

i haven't slept well for the past few weeks.
this is not really unusual
for me.
at 8,
i became a master tetris player,
a result of
a lot
quality time with my father,
who also couldn't sleep,
at two in the morning.

my freshmen year of college
was a blur of sleepless nights.
it was because
i couldn't sleep,
and not
because of
all-night partying.

and poor larry.
i cannot tell you how
many nights
he has been forced
to deal with me:
not tired,
nowhere near closing 
my eyes,
and, in fact,
too wired
to lay still and silent.

this past
year brought with it a
new job that
tires me out so well,
for the first time in my life
i sleep easily.
but, the recent weeks
have felt
just like old times.

and while sometimes
(most of the time)
it's horrible and i wish
for a magical wand that will
make me normal,
make me fall asleep within
seconds of my head hitting
the pillow, or at the very least,
within minutes of thinking,
i'm ready for bed now,
other times, it's perfect for
menu planning.

two thursdays ago,
i bought, as i am apt to do,
a very large handful
of a vegetable i didn't

their tag
said sea beans,
and as i grabbed a bunch,
of the slim, textured strands,
i imagined stir frying them
with soy sauce and hoisin,
water chestnuts, shiitake mushrooms
and tofu.

but then, i went home
and bit into one.
at the first moment
of the first bite,
the flavor was recognizable:
a close relative of the string bean.
a second later however,
another familiar flavor set-in:
sea water. big gulps of it.

these things are salty.
really salty -
certainly not soy sauce appropriate.
but i paid
for them and
i love a challenge and i was going to use them.
so i turned to cookbooks
the internet,
both of which provided
very little information.
basically they're salty,
they have many other names
(hence the title of this post)
they were used
on top chef once or twice,
they're fun as garnishes
they were featured in two recipes
in all of epicurious.

if i wanted to make something
with them, i would have
to come up with it myself.
at night, i alternated between
wishing for sleep and day-dreaming
up sea bean recipes -
should they be a side dish?
the main component of the meal?
are they really good in a frittata,
as one recipe online indicated?
chicken or fish? does it really matter?

finally i decided not to drive myself
anymore crazy and 
to just use them in
as a side dish.
if they were still inedible salt licks,
they could be
pushed aside.
we'd still have a piece
of cod (what was i thinking...
chicken? it had to
be fish - they're sea beans,
after all) to enjoy. 

(don't think i'm completely crazy,
there were other things on
my mind, also keeping me up:
deciding on a new car, 
brought on by expensive repairs
on my old one,
and an impending cold,
just to name a few. but the
bag of sea beans 
just sitting in the fridge 
was certainly
hard to ignore.)

one thing that i did find helpful
in my research is that
they really should be
i usually despise blanching.
it involves dirtying an extra
in school, i did make a small
blanching turn-around -
we had to do it so often,
that setting up
a bowl of ice water
boiling a pot of water
and quickly dipping
became second nature
and i even started to
embrace the
benefit. blanching
not only par-cooks
the item, but also
locks in color, texture
and flavor to ensure that
when a vegetable is cooked
or placed on a crudites
platter, it stays pretty, 
firm and
this is the greatest set for blanching. it's a colander that locks into a bowl, so i can drain and plunge into ice water without having to fish inside the bowl of cold water to seek out the veggies (i think it was $2.99.).

with sea beans - there's an added
bonus. normally, sprinkling
salt into the blanching water
is a must, but in this case,
you dunk them in plain water
to extract
some of the salt.
resist the urge to skip
this step.

that being said, the other
thing you should resist,
is the natural inclination to season
with salt while you prepare this
dish. even with the
they're salty enough.

the greens make an interesting base
for this shiitake-studded side.
crisp and flavorful, they add great
balance to the 
mushrooms, which when
take on quite a rich
and meaty texture.
the lemon and almonds, which
like a natural
did not disappoint.

and that evening, although,
it was not longlasting,
i slept well.

i must admit two things:
i loved this dish.
larry did not.
he picked everything else out
to eat,
but the poor salty
samphires, were left
(it's not their fault they're salty!).
i thought that by blanching them,
adding a small amount of peanut oil
and a squirt of lemon
the lot mellowed, but he
felt they were still
a bit much.
i do encourage,
you to give them a go
but don't say i didn't warn you:
they let their presence be known,
they will not fade into the background,
they have attitude.
anything worth its salt does.

sea beans with shiitake mushrooms and toasted almonds
1/3 lb. sea beans, trimmed
1/4 cup slivered blanched almonds
1 Tbs. peanut oil, divided
1 shallot, peeled, halved and sliced
1/3 lb. shiitake mushrooms, stemmed and halved
1 clove garlic, peeled and finely chopped
1 medium lemon, juiced

get ready to blanche: fill a bowl with cold water, add ice cubes (if you have a bowl that a colandar will fit into, use that one). in medium saucepot, bring water to a boil; add sea beans and cook 45 sec. drain into colander. immediately place colander in, or dump sea beans into, a bowl of cold water. swish around until beans are completely cool; drain and dry.

meanwhile, place almonds in a small dry saucepan. turn heat to medium-low and cook 5 minutes, or until almonds are just a light golden brown, shaking the pan often; if they start to become fragrant, remove them from heat immediately. set aside.

in saucepan over medium heat, warm 1 tsp. peanut oil 45 seconds. add sliced shallots and cook 2 minutes, or until shallot are tender and translucent. add remaining 2 tsp. olive oil. add mushrooms and increase heat to medium-high. cook 5 minutes, or until mushrooms are tender. add seabeans and garlic; cook 1 minute. add lemon juice and toasted almonds; cook 1 minute more, stirring often.

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