Shopping at Whole Foods is an experience. Part of the experience is having your wallet sucked drier than a cornbread fart, but the more pleasant aspect is finding strange new foods to try. This week's expensive but foodie-brain-nourishing treat was a handful of "sea beans."
These bright-green, exotic little stalks weigh in at $12.99 a pound, and, as I discovered later after a bit of online research, are neither directly from the sea nor actual beans. But they are really, really tasty. Tasty enough to drive me to commit a petty crime with little remorse.
I visit the Cherry Creek Whole Foods (2375 East First Avenue) for my bi-weekly fix, and strolling through the produce section is akin to taking in an arboretum of all that is leafy, colorful, aromatic and somewhat affordable. The rows of well-groomed vegetables taunt me, begging for me to make them mine, slay them with my trusty Wusthof chef's knife, and lay them to rest on a ceramic platter, bathed in olive oil, sea salt and fresh-cracked pepper. This trip, I noticed a nervous-looking woman pawing through one of the little damp baskets while peering around like she was committing a public felony -- then saw her pop something small and green in her mouth. I approached, eager to see if whatever was in the basket was truly worth breaking the understood social covenant about grocery-store grazing without permission. Her eyes met mine. My nod was an unspoken gesture indicating that I had no interest in cheesing her out to the produce staff, because, like her, I was instantly enthralled by the generous pile of wet, cactus-looking green things in the basket.
The diminutive, emerald-hued tidbits labeled "Sea Beans" were delicate, like tiny cruciferous asparagus buds. They looked so enticing that they drove me to commit a copycat micro-crime and shove one in my mouth, and I savored every second of my naughtiness while enjoying the refreshing crispness and the vegetative and surprisingly saline taste -- like a deliciously salty cross between baby spinach and tender, young asparagus. I came down from my little food-gasm long enough to case the area for staffers ready to beat down produce-poachers, but the coast was clear. So I carefully picked out a few ounces of sea beans from the basket, gingerly placed them in a plastic bag, and figured that my criminal behavior was somewhat mitigated by actually purchasing the delectable greens. I made an honest vegetable out of them.
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After I got home, I immediately looked up sea beans on the Internet. Although I am a solid food nerd, every once in a while I'll run across flora or fauna that I'm unfamiliar with. (The only time I ever know everything about food is at cocktail parties, and I'm sure everyone there just loves hearing all about the history of margarine.) According to Elizabeth Schneider's Vegetables From Amaranth to Zucchini, sea beans are actually Salicornia (also called samphire or glasswort) and grow wild on beaches and salt marshes in North America, Europe, Asia and Australia. These petite plants get their natural flavor from sucking up salt water, and they can be eaten raw in salads or lightly sautéed.
I read on various foodie blogs that with the advent of foraged foods, sea beans are growing in popularity and are now being sold in farmers' markets in non-coastal areas. But the catch is that they are only readily available for a few weeks around the beginning of May, and their shelf life is painfully short. So this is a treat you have to buy fast, and use faster.
After relishing the few ounces I purchased, I would recommend serving them after a light, quick steam or sauté as a bed for a nice piece of fish or chicken, as a garnish, or atop a spring salad with a light vinaigrette dressing. I would not, however, recommend following my immoral example and engaging in unauthorized produce sampling at Whole Foods, no matter how much they plunder your checking account like a huge, shiny pirate ship.