How to Cook with Sea Beans
Have you heard of sea beans? I have been lucky enough to try them at innovative restaurants, and recently I spied them at my local farmers market to cook them at home. I created this Sea Bean Cesar Salad as a way to showcase your sea-salty flavor. Sea beans are not a form of seaweed—they grow wild in coastal areas around the world, including the U.S. They are also not a true bean—they just look a little bit like them. In fact, sea beans are the fleshy stems and branches of a plant in the genus Salicornia. Indeed, they do have a salty, sea-like flavor, which offers a wonderful taste profile to plant-based cuisine.
What are Sea Beans?
The sea bean is one of about 30 species of the genus Salicornia of the amaranth family. Salicornia (literally meaning “salt horn”) goes by other names as well, such as samphire, glasswort, pickleweed, and sea asparagus. The nickname glasswort comes from its role in glassmaking. In the 16th century, it would be burned to leave ash and sodium carbonate. The sodium carbonate would then be filtered and used in the production of glass and soap detergents.
Where Do You Find Sea Beans?
It is a prehistoric plant, often found in coastal areas, salty springs, and marshes that can grow up to 1 foot tall. The plant itself looks like asparagus or green beans, and has a similar crunchy texture. The stems are like a column of jointed capsules that snap like beans, and separate into multiple branches. Left planted, the bright-green stems turn bright red, crimson or purple in the fall. When it gets that red color, a small root-like central thread develops in the interior of the stem, leaving it best to pick small, firm, bright green branches. If you are foraging yourself, snap off small sections from the top of the plants- that is the most tender and best for the plant.
You can find sea beans at the local farmers market during the summer months, but they can also be grown from seeds in a garden. The downside to growing them yourself in a home garden is that they lose most of their signature saltiness.
How Do You Cook with Sea Beans?
Fresh sea beans straight from the ocean usually have a layer of salt deposits from ocean spray that needs to be cleaned off, and can be done best by blanching and a subsequent ice water bath; if they are still too salty when raw, try soaking the branches in water for up to 2 hours.
There are so many ways to use sea beans in cooking. They can be sautéed with some garlic and lemon, stir-fried, pickled (lightly blanched is best for this), steamed, deep fried in tempura, or even eaten raw. They can even be made into salt topping by dehydrating 12 ounces of blanched sea beans and grinding the result in a mortar and pestle to remove that central thread (this yields about ¼ cup dried salt). Make sure not to cook them too long or else they will lose their classic crunch.
As a side, sea beans go well with starchy vegetables like potatoes, and are excellent with rice, quinoa, couscous and pasta. They’re also a good replacement for green beans and asparagus in frittatas and salads, just make sure to reduce the salt in the recipe. Because sea beans have such a salty flavor (in the stalks, the tips have little flavor), it would be best to stay away from salty condiments and salad dressings as well; try using olive or avocado oil, herbs, unsalted plant-based butter, and flavored vinegar for flavor.
For storage, wrap the branches in a damp paper towel, then a layer of plastic or a plastic bag in the fridge for up to a week. If the stalks get limp before you can use them, refresh in an ice water bath to regain its crisp texture.
What Nutrients are in Sea Beans?
Sea beans absorb dissociated sodium and chloride (very different from ionic sodium chloride, otherwise known as table salt) in saline bodies of water; the saltiness in sea beans comes from benign ionic minerals from the water. Sodium regulates the total amount of water in the body, and the transmission of sodium into and out of individual cells also plays a role in critical body functions. It also plays an important role in maintaining blood volume (blood pressure). Many processes in the body, especially in the brain, nervous system, and muscles, require electrical signals for communication that occur through the movement of sodium. Sodium works with potassium to regulate water in the body through the sodium/potassium pump. This pump is balanced through diet; ones that contain a lot of vegetables (vegan, plant-based, raw) are naturally rich in potassium. Chloride is also a highly valuable nutrient needed to keep the proper balance of body fluids. Combined with hydrogen in the stomach, it produces hydrochloric acid, an enzyme responsible for the break-down of proteins, and the absorption of minerals. These three combined work together in the nervous system to help send electrical impulses throughout the body.
Sea water is known as the best source of every mineral on the planet, giving sea beans a high nutrient profile. Sea beans contain protein (10 g in ½ cup), calcium, riboflavin, iodine (important for thyroid function), magnesium, copper, vitamin A, vitamin C, iron, potassium and dietary fiber. While ionic minerals from plants as part of a healthful diet are harmless (unless ingested in large quantities), it is important to watch sodium intake, because too much can throw the body off balance.
I tried my hand at cooking sea beans to star in a simple, vegan Sea Bean Cesar salad—using the sea beans to provide the sea flavor instead of anchovies. Remember that sea beans are salty—so don’t add extra salt when you cook these intriguing plants. I think this is a really simple, creative way to try sea beans the first time. Essentially this recipe for Sea Bean Cesar Salad is based on very few ingredients, which still allows the vibrancy of the sea beans to shine through.
Written by Sharon Palmer, MSFS, RDN and Rachel Valez, Dietetic Intern