Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Pickled Sea Asparagus

What is sea asparagus? It’s not really an asparagus, not even in the same family of plants, but Salicornia virginica is commonly known as “sea asparagus”. It is also called American glasswort, perennial saltwort and Pacific samphire. This intertidal perennial is found all along the Pacific Northwest coast in saltwater marshes, on tide flats and on beaches. It thrives on shores that don’t have strong wave action and surf. (ref. Plants of the Pacific Northwest Coast, Pojar and Mackinnon) Common in the upper intertidal zone of many shores, you will find it in the company of goose tongue and fucus.

Fucus, a seaweed with bulbs that are fun to pop.
Sea asparagus is in the center of the shot, goose tongue has the broader leaf.
I’ve gathered sea asparagus in the past, have even steamed it and tossed it with butter to serve as a sidedish oddity. It has the texture and crunch of a thin green bean, without the bean’s flavor to recommend it. It’s fairly tasteless, unless you consider salty a flavor. An unusual vegetable, it’s not something I usually seek out.

I didn’t search for it this time, but kept crunching through it as I tromped along a rocky beach in Appleton Cove. I guess the sea asparagus found me. I enjoy the tangy shreds of ocean salad as a side dish with sushi or summer rolls and wondered if a dish of pickled sea asparagus might serve the same purpose.

Just for fun I picked a sackful of the small, tender shoots for the following pickling experiment. 
  1. Soak and rinse in fresh water several times. (the strong saltiness of the raw vegetable was undiminished)
  2. Cover with a hot brine of seasoned rice vinegar, water, minced garlic and red pepper flakes; bring to room temperature, then refrigerate for a day or two (still crisp and salty, but improved in flavor)
  3. Drain and toss with a bit of hot sesame oil. Top with sliced green onion and sesame seeds.
The result was surprisingly good. Sea asparagus won’t make the team as a weekly vegetable offering, but its tangy crunch could earn it an occasional backup role as a condiment. Try it as a topping for steamed rice or cold soba noodles. Caution: it remains a very salty vegetable.   

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