Before I went gluten-free, about the only beans I had ever eaten were green beans (mostly from a can with a happy large guy on it), refried beans out of a pop-top can, and canned beans in soups and tacos made with those indestructo hard shells that came nestled against each other in a package. (Of course, they were entirely destructible. Out of 12 in a box, only two or three emerged from the shadows intact.) I knew ditties about beans as a musical fruit, I remembered the story of Jack and the Beanstalk, and I knew that some beans are white and some are black.
I had never eaten a fava bean. I had never grown a bean from seed. And I had never even heard of a sea bean.
More formally known as samphire or salicornica, sea beans are also called glasswort, sea asparagus, sea greens, and sea pickle. (The name seems to depend on which part of the U.S. you are in.) Call them whatever you want. I call sea beans one of my favorite vegetables of late summer. I look forward to that first salty bite every year.
Found in marshes and at the place where a river meets the sea, sea beans are becoming more visible in cities because of foragers at farmers' markets. They grow stick straight toward the sky, with one slender stalk and tiny lateral branches. (Think a 3-inch-tall Christmas tree without any needles.) You might miss them if you didn't know how good they are. They're humble. And wonderful.
Have you ever spent an entire day at the beach, jumping the waves, eating peaches with sand on your hands, sitting in the sun just long enough to dry off, then jumping back into the ocean? Ever licked your skin at the end of that day? That's what a sea bean tastes like.
Because they are quite salty, sea beans don't work well with any foods that are assertively salty as well. You can reduce the saltiness of sea beans by blanching them. However, since that kiss of salt is part of the essential nature of sea beans, I like to leave them as they are. Eaten in salads or tossed into scrambled eggs at the last moment, sea beans are best raw or just lightly cooked. Apply heat for too long and they turn a little fishy. (However, paired with a fillet of wild Alaska salmon, this is not a bad thing.)
Sea beans get pickled in our house as soon as we walk into the kitchen with them in our hands. Since you want to eat sea beans the day they are picked (or as soon after as possible), pickling is a great way to keep that taste around. After all, as much as you might like them, you probably don't want to eat 2 pounds of sea beans in one day. (Well, unless you're going for that salt lick feeling.) Pickling keeps them going strong for at least a week.
Just enough time for you to get the jones to go back to the beach for more sea beans.
Quick-Pickled Sea Beans
- 1 pound fresh sea beans
- 1 1/2 cups water
- 1/2 cup white wine vinegar
- 1 tablespoon kosher salt
- 2 teaspoons sugar
- 2 garlic cloves
- 1 bay leaf
Put the sea beans into jars, not stuffed but comfortably full.
Bring the water, vinegar, salt, sugar, garlic, and bay leaf to a boil in a large pot. Pour the liquid into the jars and put on the lids. Let sit in the refrigerator overnight before eating.
Good for 1 week.