Samphire

I love samphire. Also known as sea bean, pickle grass and sea asparagus, this succulent grows in salt marshes, on beach outskirts, and on wave-spattered cliffs.

Salty, crunchy, like nothing else on earth, samphire is the key to a few of my most piquant memories. Summers in Ireland were a definite highlight of a childhood spent in grey London suburbs, where concrete and brick kept plant life sternly in check. Although England is a small island, I don’t remember ever going to the coast. No; during my childhood, the sea was Ireland, and Ireland was the sea.

Green, effervescent, lonely, ancient and mysterious in a way that the parts of England I knew never could be, the Irish countryside was a  chimerical land of centuries-old graveyards, huts dug into hillsides, and  the tangy, dark-grey smell of peat moss burning. I galloped through the surf on a borrowed Connemara pony named Rocky, costumed myself in pungent ribbons of seaweed, painted with pigments I made from crushed flowers, charcoal and dirt.

And, of course, I ate. Tart and vivid red currants straight from the bush, prickly gooseberries, cockles and clams dug from the sand at low tide – and samphire. There is an unmitigated joy in eating something picked by one’s own hand, all the more gratifying if that something grows wild. Eating cockles steamed on a bed of freshly harvested samphire was a joy that became part of my constitution, informing and solidifying a tiny part of my best self.

Recently, walking with a friend on the beach in Kingston, Washington, I discovered samphire growing. I delightedly harvested handfuls of the crisp green stalks, already thinking about how I would cook them.

Here’s what I did:

Potato-samphire salad

Six large Yukon Gold, or other waxy boiling potatoes

8 oz samphire (or roughly two handfuls)

Two cups cherry tomatoes, halved

Quarter cup fresh herbs, torn or chopped (I used oregano and basil; parsley, dill, tarragon and chervil would work too)

Two tablespoons coconut oil, melted (you can also use good olive oil)

Sea salt and pepper

Boil the potatoes until tender, reserving the water. Cut into half-inch cubes. Blanch the samphire in the potato water, and shock under a cold tap to stop the cooking. Cut into one inch lengths. Toss the potatoes and samphire with the tomatoes, herbs, oil and salt and pepper to taste. Serve warm or cold.

I also made a samphire frittata, with herbs, garlic and feta. Bread, just-picked salad  greens, a bottle of cold and austere (and cheap) Chablis.

It was good – even better for being outside, on a fine evening, in good company.

Far from the sea and even farther from the untamed Ireland of my childhood, I’m already dreaming of my next taste of samphire.

Why, yes, that is safeway brand “refreshe” fizzy water. I like it very much.
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