Even if you've never heard of it, you may have already trod on it at the seashore or seen piles of it at farmers' markets. And unless you're the curious type, you might have walked right on by. Sea asparagus (Salicornia) is an otherworldly looking vegetable, and yes, it is a vegetable.
Various species grow around the globe; the one we see here is native to North America. A succulent – its pea-green segments are plump with salt water – it's already perfectly seasoned. Enjoy it raw in a salad, or cooked and eaten as you might green beans or asparagus (the terrestrial kind); it's a natural with seafood.
On the East Coast, it's most often called samphire greens or beach asparagus, but it's also known as sea beans, glasswort, crow's foot greens and many other regional names. Taking advantage of two growing seasons, wild food expert and forager Jonathan Forbes sells sea asparagus from both coasts, starting in early June to late July from north of Sooke, B.C., then from late June until the end of August from Nova Scotia. And how does Forbes like his salicornia? "My favourite way of eating it is in a salad with fresh greens with an olive oil, lemon, garlic, anchovy, yogurt dressing."
The price ranges from $12 to $20 a pound at your local farmers' market, or find preserved sea asparagus at Forbes's website, www.wildfoods.ca.
Grilled Whole Ontario Trout in Sea Asparagus
Bury a whole Ontario trout in a bed of naturally moist and salty sea asparagus. Over the grill or in the oven, the salty water of the vegetable will steam and season the fish as it cooks. If you have a grilling basket, that's perfect; if not, tinfoil will work just fine. This recipe is ripe for improvising. Use whatever sustainable fish you prefer, whole or filleted. I like whole fish because the cavity offers another place to add flavour and ingredients – perhaps more sea asparagus.
Ready time: 30 minutes
2 1-pound fresh whole rainbow trout, cleaned, head and tail on
2 tbsp butter, softened, or 4 tsp olive oil
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
About 1 pound sea asparagus, rinsed and drained
A few sprigs of your favourite fresh herbs
1 lemon, washed, thinly sliced and seeded
Rub the fish inside and outside with either butter or olive oil, then season with black pepper; don’t salt until you taste the finished fish because the sea asparagus will add saltiness.
Stuff the cavity with any combination of sea asparagus and fresh herbs of your choice.
Lay the lemon slices on both sides of the fish.
Tuck sea asparagus all around the fish, either inside a grilling basket or on heavy-duty tinfoil. Drizzle with more olive oil. If using foil, make a tight package.
Grill over a medium-high grill, flipping midway through, or roast in the oven at 450 F. Cooking time depends on the thickness of the fish, but generally count on about 10 minutes for each inch of thickness, or use a meat thermometer – the fish is cooked when it reaches 120-140 F at the thickest point.
Serve with the sea asparagus.