Beach Asparagus, Sea Beans, Sea Asparagus
...and those are just three of the common names we use for Salicornia; a salty, crunchy, edible plant that grows on some Southeast Alaska beaches.
With multiple names suggesting food, this plant is worth exploring!
Here in Southeast we call it beach asparagus. It is a round-stemmed, segmented succulent that grows in the upper part of the intertidal zone. Beach asparagus is more common in southern Southeast Alaska, and less abundant as you travel north toward Juneau and Haines.
Beach asparagus is usually best for harvest from mid-June to mid-July, so bookmark this post for next summer's harvest. You might even be able to scope out a few patches this summer to go to next year. This perennial plant will come up on the same stretch of beach year after year.
Early in the season the stems are short and skinny, and late in the season, when the plant is blooming and the tips turn reddish, the taste and texture becomes woody. The harvesting window in between is usually three weeks, sometimes four.
Look for beach asparagus on pristine beaches away from busy marinas, storm drains, and water treatment plant outfalls. We found a beautiful, clean beach recently, and set to work picking. It doesn't take long to collect enough beach asparagus for dinner and to preserve for winter meals.
Beach asparagus may be harvested by cutting it with scissors or by gently plucking the top portion so that it breaks at the natural joints.
Clean each handful as you go so that you will not be overwhelmed by the task when you get home. Pull grass and other plants out as you pick. Be conscious that the green leaves of sea arrow grass are toxic, and so should not be mixed in with your beach asparagus. Sea arrow grass is a taller, smooth-stemmed, darker green plant that does not look like beach asparagus, but may grow in the same area.
A bowl or bucket makes harvesting faster and easier than trying to put beach asparagus into a bag.
When you get home rinse the beach asparagus in fresh water and clean away any debris that you missed while picking.
Refrigerate the beach asparagus and use or preserve within a few days.
We pressure canned eight jars of beach asparagus, and then opened one of the jars to see how we liked it. Lots of people have told us that they LOVE it canned, and use it in salads, guacamole, pesto, stir fries, or eat it as a side dish. We will use it in recipes, but found that we prefer frozen beach asparagus.
Just a note if you plan to can beach asparagus - it is low acid and must be pressure canned. In her book Common Edible Seaweeds in the Gulf of Alaska Dolly Garza recommends using the instructions for canning green beans, so check with an extension service for safe canning instructions.
Frozen beach asparagus retains the deep green color that it takes on in the blanching process, and some of the crunchiness that adds delightful texture to many dishes.
Here's how we put up quart freezer bags of beach asparagus...
We did a final sort to get stray grass stems, etc. out of the beach asparagus, rinsed in fresh water, and then soaked it in fresh water for one hour to reduce the saltiness. It still has a nice salty tang to it, but is not so salty that it takes over a mild recipe. You don't have to soak it! It is a matter of personal preference, and can be used as-is or soaked as long as overnight.
While the beach asparagus was soaking we set up a table and a propane burner on the back deck of the boat and popped up to Thorne Bay Market to buy two bags of ice. Then we assembled a large pot, strainer, plastic tubs, colander, freezer bags, paper towels (for my inevitable messiness), a timer, Sharpie marker, and a salad spinner.
We filled one of the tubs about a third full of cold water and added a quarter of a bag of ice.
We brought the water to a boil in the big pot, put several handfuls of beach asparagus in, and then we put the lid on. Timing can be between 30 seconds and two minutes. We chose to blanch for one minute. The beach asparagus turned a beautiful, bright green!
We dipped the beach asparagus out of the pot with the strainer, and put it into the ice water. The ice floated and the beach asparagus sank, so we skimmed the ice out and then drained the beach asparagus in the colander. We added more ice to the cold water with each batch.
Optional: Spin the beach asparagus in the salad spinner to remove excess water. My sweetheart had this inspiration, and it works very well! This way the product is not glued together with ice in the bag after freezing, and we are able to remove whatever portion size we want from the bag.
We packed the beach asparagus into labeled and dated bags, pressed out as much air as possible, sealed, and laid the bags out in one layer in the freezer.
I looked over some of the online recipes for this vegetable. They sound great! I pretty much never have shallots and cooking wine, though. There's always onions and butter in my food stash, so let's keep it simple.
Slice an onion into crescents, saute in butter till almost translucent, add a few handfuls of beach asparagus and saute for two more minutes. Serve as a side dish. Yum.
Add beach asparagus to a summer stew that is heavy on a variety of veggies. It gives every other bite a crunchy-salty flair. (Remember not to add salt.)
Beach asparagus goes very well with salmon and other fish.
Blanched or lightly steamed beach asparagus is a great addition to salads! O-oh, even pasta salad.
Yes, beach asparagus can be eaten raw. It can be a crunchy snack right there on the beach. Just remove any snails first.
Reports vary on the nutritional value of beach asparagus, ranging from good-for-you to AMAZINGLY-WONDEROUS-SUPERFOOD. Well, I figure that just getting out onto a beautiful Alaskan beach to collect it is step one in healthy food production. Eating or preserving the greens within a few days of harvest is step two. And if you want to target specific nutritional needs then beach asparagus is a source of vitamins A, B2, B9 (folic acid), B15, C, and the minerals iron, calcium, manganese, and magnesium. There are also valuable phytochemicals in this salty little plant. Whether it is a standard vegetable or a superfood, beach asparagus seems to me to be a great addition to all but low-salt diets.