I have to begin this post with an apology. I generally try to avoid ingredients that are hard to find or are out of season, and this time the main subject is both not necessarily easy to get (if you’re in the U.S.) and is at the tail end of its season. From the title of the post you might have guessed that I’m talking about samphire, also known as glasswort or pickleweed: a scaly green herb that grows in and around salt marshes.
Samphire – more properly marsh samphire as there are several edible varieties – grows abundantly on England’s coasts, especially in marshy areas like Norfolk and Essex. If you’re in London or other cities in the U.K., you might have noticed it making a comeback in restaurants lately, where it costs a pretty penny. I’ve seen it at Borough Market for around 20 pounds per kilo (imported from Isreal!), but it’s not that difficult to find for yourself if you head out of town to places like this:
That picture was taken at the front end of Mersea Island on the Essex coast. Mersea is an oyster-shaped island that is also famous for its oysters (Mersea Rocks). It’s located in the estuaries of the rivers Blackwater and Colne and is home to many salt marshes and, as I found out, wild samphire.
I am really not one to wade through marshes- I don’t have the gear -so I didn’t expect to come across any, but at the end of the day I spotted some growing along the banks of the salt-water channel that separates Mersea Island from the mainland for about an hour a day when the tides completely cover the mud flats. The tide was in so I could just make out the scaly tips of the plant poking out of the water.
I decided to go for it though and was able to snip off a few of the bushy stems and pack them in a make-shift bundle made out of my map of the island. (A note on this: the plants are easily uprooted and a sustainable forager will take care to not pull them out by the root. Take a pair of scissors or shears with you so that you can trim the green tops off, as you would any herb that you want to keep growing).
Samphire tastes of the sea: it’s briny, salty and crisp. To prepare it, you don’t need to do much more than wash and cook in unsalted butter. Since I only took a few stems though, I wanted to stretch it, so I cooked it with shrimp and rice (a London version of my Mom’s shrimp and grits) and it really added a dimension to the dish. If you don’t have samphire, you could use tender-stem broccolini or asparagus instead, but think of this as a recipe to come back to next summer.
Ingredients (for two people)
12 large shrimp (you want around 5-6 pieces per person)
4 pieces of bacon
1 cup of long-grain rice
2 cups chicken or seafood broth
2 stalks of celery with leaves
1 medium sweet onion
2 cloves of garlic
2 bay leaves
200 g / .5 lb of samphire
2 tbs butter
1 tbs olive oil
Black pepper to taste
First prepare the rice by soaking it in warm water for 15 minutes, then rinsing it in cold water in a strainer until the water runs clear.
Dice the onion and celery finely, removing the celery leaves and dicing them separately. Put the diced onion and celery stem in one bowl and the minced celery leaf in another. Next mince the garlic and set aside with the bay leaves.
Heat the olive oil in a small pot. Fry the diced onion and celery stalk until they turn translucent. Add the garlic and bay leaves and fry until fragrant. Then add the rice and fry over high heat, stirring all the while, until the rice crisps. Add 1.5 cups of the beef stock and give the mixture a final stir so that any rice sticking to the bottom of the pot comes loose. Bring this to a boil and let boil until most of the liquid evaporates and you can see little holes forming in the top of the rice due to escaping steam.
At this point, cover the rice tightly (I use a paper towel and plate) and cook on medium heat for 5 minutes. Then turn off the heat and let the rice steam, covered, for 25 minutes.
Prepare the samphire by washing it thoroughly if you picked it yourself to remove sand, grit and any other plants that are clinging to it (I had bits of kelp in mine since I picked it at the edge of an estuary). Remove any tough, woody bits – kitchen scissors worked very well here. The bits you don’t want will be brown or yellow-green, and if you uprooted the plant rather than trimming it, you will have quite a bit of inedible stalk. Cut the larger stems in half so that each piece is bite-sized. When you’re done, set these aside for the moment.
Begin the shrimp about 10 minutes before you eat. First, fry the bacon in a pan until it crisps. Remove, drain, and chop into bite-sized pieces. Then, heat 1 tbs of the butter in the same pan and fry the remainder of the celery stalk and onion with the chopped bacon pieces until translucent. Then add the celery leaves and fry until fragrant. Add the shrimp and remaining half cup of stock and cook until the shrimp are done (around 3 minutes). Keep this covered and warm but not on the heat so the shrimp doesn’t over-cook.
Finally, heat the other tbs of butter in another pan and saute the samphire until it’s warmed through but not browned.
Serve immediately: the shrimp-mixture and rice go together, and the samphire should be a compliment to this. If you want it to look neat, you can spoon the hot rice into a teacup, packing it tightly, then turn the cup over onto a plate so that it makes a mold. Then arrange the samphire around the edge of the rice and spoon heaps of the shrimp at intervals, or on top of the rice. Spoon any buttery broth from the shrimp pan over the rice and samphire.