WILD FOOD: The asparagus of the sea

You can find this wild, salty, coastal plant pickled in an Island Caesar or perched on a piece of grilled salmon — and it's free for the foraging!


©Cinda Chavich


By CINDA CHAVICH


It’s not really from the sea, and it’s no relation to asparagus, but sea asparagus is a popular ingredient for creative chefs on Canada’s coasts.

I first encountered it in the Acadian fishing communities in New Brunswick, where you see signs offering “Samphire for Sale” along rural roads.

You might also also find the segmented greens labeled “pickleweed” or “Crow’s Feet”, a nod to the skinny succulent’s branching tips.

But here on the west coast it’s a known as sea beans or sea asparagus. Not technically a sea vegetable, Salicornia spp. is a bushy little plant that is foraged from the high tide line and in salty marshes along of our ocean side shores.

It’s a wild green with a fresh, briny flavour that’s a natural with seafood, and fits well into any hyper-local plate. Sea asparagus takes well to pickling, so turns as a garnish in your west coast Caesar cocktail, or just perched atop a piece of grilled salmon for a hit of crisp texture and salty acidity.

In his excellent book about wild foods of the Pacific Northwest, The Deerholme Foraging Book, chef Bill Jones explains that sea beans are not technically sea vegetables, like BC’s wide selection of seaweeds, but their intertidal habitat gives them a similar flavour profile.

Jones recommends foraging Salicornia in summer “when the stems are plump and tender,” then soaking them to remove some of the salt before serving. Cut off the tough ends, blanch quickly and shock in ice water to set the bright green colour, then chop sea asparagus to serve in salads, use it as a salty herb with oysters, sauté in butter to serve as a vegetable, or pickle. Blanched samphire keeps for up to 10 days in the refrigerator, or can be frozen.

Jones makes a quick pickle of sea beans, steeping the stems in a hot brine of white wine vinegar, pickling spice and sugar to serve alongside seared Albacore tuna.

Bluewater Café chef Frank Pabst adds sea asparagus to his linguine and local Littleneck clam dish, with classic ingredients like garlic, white wine and pancetta.

Chef Ned Bell makes a crunchy Sea Asparagus Salsa Verde, the samphire combined with chopped dulse, parsley and chives, to serve alongside creamy Sea Urchin Custard.

Sea asparagus takes well to Asian flavours, too. Toss it with sesame oil and a bit of sweet chili sauce, or a dressing of miso and yuzu. You might add sea asparagus to a stir fry with prawns or roll into maki sushi for some salty crunch.

Even if you can’t get out to the shore to forage for sea asparagus, look for it at your local fish counter. Then just soak and blanch it for a tasty, west coast treat.


©Cinda Chavich