I don’t know if I ever bit into a crunchy, salty sea bean when I lived on the shores of the Pacific. I certainly remember walking on them. I remember the crunch and pop of them underfoot.
This summer, while walking with my dad along a rocky beach, near where he lives in British Columbia, I asked him if he knew of any local, wild edibles. “Well, there is sea asparagus,” he said. He gestured down beneath his shoes. He hadn’t eaten it either, but his girlfriend, a poet and a kayaker, knew that if she ever found herself stranded and starving on the Pacific coast, she could eat them. It would be a mighty salty survival food, and my lips still pucker when I think of my first taste. They taste like a sea water reduction.
Chefs love them. And if they love them, there has to be something going on. I set to work harvesting a bowl full with my dad and daughter, and then I looked up recipes. We parboiled them, and flash fried them in butter, garlic and lemon. We did not salt them. I used them to garnish a beautiful wild Pacific salmon my husband cooked. The meal made so much sense, but they are still something of an acquired taste.
Then, because we had far more than we could eat as a garnish, I continued my research. Hunter, Angler, Gardener, Cook wrote of an experiment dehydrating them. Since my dad just happened to be driving around with a dehydrator in his truck, we gave it a whirl. I have yet to complete the final step in the mortar and pestle to make sea bean salt. I can’t quite imagine ever wanting so much ocean flavor in a dish.
I had one other sea bean experience this year. Days after I returned from the west coast, I found myself shooting a campaign for Neuman’s Kitchen, a high end catering company in NYC. They feed the corporate crowds, and they create extraordinary feasts for benefits. Chef Robb Garceau is a pleasure to work with, and for each of the photoshoots we have done, he visits the Greenmarket early in the morning for inspiration. Imagine my surprise, when one afternoon he suddenly appeared with an herb-salt encrusted Arctic char, a whole variety of beautiful shellfish preparations, and a bowl of pickled sea beans. I do think this is the best way to go. The salt, crunch, and pop of them is just meant to blend with vinegar, and is why sea beans are also known as pickleweed.
As for the dehydrated sea beans in a little baggie on my desk, they await grinding. I keep wondering what to do with the salt once I make it. Could I rim a glass in sea bean dust for an updated version of a Caesar (a classic Canadian cocktail made with clam juice)? How about sea bean salted wine for steamed clams? A dusting on white fish? And then I take a nibble of the now dry (but still very salty) sticks, and I’m right back on the shores of Hornby Island, picking them with my dad.