I’ve been tired lately. Exhausted. Zonked on a cellular level. Book tour has been going well, by all accounts — I had a fantastic book dinner at Farmstead in Napa last week — but I’ve been runnin’ and gunnin’ non-stop since mid-May. I needed rest, big time, or I’d crumble. But you know what they say: “No rest for the weary.” So just six hours after our Napa dinner, Holly and I were on the beach near Bodega Bay.
Why the rush? My friends Dan and Mirra of the Perennial Plate are on an epic road trip of their own, and they wanted to shoot an episode of their acclaimed video series with me. Topic? Seashore foraging. This being summer, the beach is on everyone’s mind; just last weekend I was lucky enough to be on The Splendid Table, where I talked with host Lynne Rossetto Kasper about foraging at the water’s edge.
Seashore foraging is best done around low tide, so it was important that we be there in time; dead low tide that day was at 6 a.m. I couldn’t bear to be up that early after so much food and wine at Farmstead, so we met at 7:30. Thankfully, as we rolled up to the parking lot, there was still plenty of low tide left for us. I admit to being a little anxious; I’m still a newbie at video, and was trying to psych myself up to be “on” for the camera. My heart was running, and it was not just the coffee.
But the moment I stepped out of my truck I felt better. I could smell the salt, and that unmistakable perfume of low tide, a melange of brine, mud and decay that thrills the cockles of my heart. Quite literally in this case, because the mud flat in front of us is a well-known place to dig clams. I know. Low tide? Really? Really. You have to grow up with the smell to really appreciate it, and I know, intellectually, that it stinks. But the aroma triggers some of my oldest memories. Foggy, pastel images of picking through debris at the high tide line, digging clams in some back bay, picking and eating so many beach peas I couldn’t finish my lunch of fried clams and tartar sauce.
My ears rang with the crash of the waves, which to me is as soothing as the whispering pines are to a lover of the mountains. Terns and gulls and a far-off gaggle of Canada geese added melody to the sea’s bass thrum. God, but it was good to be back!
I strolled around, soaking it in, and when Dan and Mirra pulled up I was already checking out my first seaside edible: Western sea rocket.
Sea rocket is a cruciferous vegetable, a cousin to arugula, broccoli, mustard and the like. In cool weather, you can eat the leaves like you would arugula: They are thicker, crunchier and saltier than inland arugula, but with the same bite. The flowers have a milder version of that tang, and are a pretty addition used as a garnish.
I fed some to Dan, and he genuinely liked it, or at least gave me that impression. Too often, he said, he’s eaten wild plants that, while edible, were a long way from delicious. But as a cook, I am all about the delicious. I know lots of survival plants, but I rarely write about them. Sea rocket, Dan said, was a winner. I started to relax. Welcome to my parlor, Dan. This is where I live.
But sea rocket lives in the dunes, far above the tide lines. Why then, did we need to get up so damn early to catch the low tide? Sea beans.
The sea beans — salicornia, saltwort, pickleweed, chicken feet, etc — are the skinny plants interspersed around the ice plant. Ice plant is edible, too, by the way, although I’ve yet to perfect a cooking method I can share with you. Still working on it. Sea beans, on the other hand, are among my favorite vegetables in the world. I’ve written about salicornia before, and there is a whole section on them in my book.
Dan and Mirra knew about these. They have become so popular you can buy sea beans online and at upscale farmer’s markets on the coasts, and chefs around the country are starting to use them, even in such inland places as Chicago. Lynne from the Splendid Table told me they could cost $20 or more at the market. Too bad for her. Here we were, standing in front of a patch larger than a football field. I gathered a pound or two to take home and play with; more on sea beans later.
After a vain search for a few clams — the area we were in holds mostly bent-nose clams, which are very gritty, we turned to the ocean beaches in search of another prized edible, New Zealand spinach, or Tetragonia tetragonoides.
New Zealand spinach isn’t botanically related to spinach, lamb’s quarters or orache, but they all serve the same purpose in the kitchen. They are a nutritious, mild-tasting green. New Zealand spinach grows along West Coast beaches: It is a native of the South Pacific, but it’s believed that the seeds, which are notoriously hard to germinate, floated on the currents to the California shore. You will rarely see tetragonia beyond the beach dunes, although you can buy seeds and grow it in your garden.
In the kitchen, New Zealand spinach needs careful washing, as it picks up a lot of sand. I wash mine 2-3 times before cooking. The leaves are brittle and are covered with a pretty silica sheen that looks like fool’s gold in a stream. Separate the leaves from stems, as the stems require much longer cooking. Even the leaves need a good 5-6 minutes in the saute pan before they’re fully cooked, however, and they will never break down the way real spinach does. The result is a briny green flavor with an al dente texture. I am a huge fan of it. (And yes, it too is in my book if you are interested in reading more.)
By the end of the morning, I felt better, both about my performance on video and about myself. Even though I was on camera, I began to relax a bit, something I desperately needed. By the time Holly and I headed home, I had already begun putting the night’s meal together in my head, something I can only do with an unworried mind.
I had sea beans, I had New Zealand spinach. I was bummed that I forgot to pick some sea rocket, but oh well. I was casting about mentally for a protein when I remembered I had some frozen abalone that our friend Charlie had given us almost a year before. That would be perfect! A seaside special.
Those of you who read this space know I am fond of creating dishes from ingredients that live together, and this one turned out especially good. Pounded, fried abalone with sauteed New Zealand spinach, served with a sauce made from abalone broth, saffron and sweet corn. The sea beans served as texture and garnish. Simple, pretty and perfect.
abalone, new zealand spinach, saffron-corn sauce
I call this dish, “Abalone North Coast,” as all the main ingredients can be found between San Francisco Bay and Del Norte County. This recipe is pretty much unrepeatable outside the Pacific, however. Abalone doesn’t live anywhere else, nor does New Zealand spinach. Sea beans do live on both coasts, however. If I were to do this dish on the Atlantic Coast, I’d use regular spinach and calamari, or I’d pound the “foot” of large quahog clams.
Although this dish looks cheffy, and maybe it is, it is not hard to make. The only special equipment you need are a blender and a mallet — and you can use an empty wine bottle if you don’t have a mallet. You can buy sea beans online through Earthy Delights (use the search function to find them; they are $14 a pound) or search for them in upscale markets. There is no substitute.
Prep Time: 1 hour
Cook Time: 15 minutes
- 1-2 abalones, about 1-2 pounds
- 1 cup flour (any kind)
- Olive oil for frying, plus 3 more tablespoons
- 1 pound New Zealand spinach, or regular spinach
- 3/4 cup abalone broth (see below) or clam juice
- 1 cup sweet corn kernels
- 1/4 teaspoon hot sauce
- Pinch of saffron
- Sea beans for garnish, about 1/4 to 1/2 cup
- Boil the sea beans in a pot of fresh water for 90 seconds. Shock in ice water and allow to cool. Pat dry and toss with a little olive oil and set aside.
- Remove stems from New Zealand spinach and wash thoroughly. Lay on a tea towel and set aside.
- Trim and clean the abalone (here is a good tutorial from a friend of mine), saving the edible trim (not the black stuff) in a bowl. Slice the abalone into 1/4 inch sheets and place them between pieces of plastic wrap. Pound thin with a mallet. If you have circle molds, use them to cut “coins” of abalone out. If not, no big deal, just cut them to even shapes. Put the trim in the bowl. Set the abalone in the fridge for now.
- Put the abalone trim in a pot with 2 cups water and bring to a boil. Drop the heat down to a bare simmer and let this cook 45 minutes. Strain and set aside.
- To make the sauce, heat 1 tablespoon olive oil in a pan and saute the corn kernels until they are heated through, about 2-3 minutes. Crumble the saffron over them and toss. Add 1/4 cup of the abalone broth and bring to a rolling boil. Turn off the heat and put everything into a blender. Add about 1/4 teaspoon salt and the hot sauce. Puree in the blender. The sauce will probably be too thick, so add abalone broth until it has the consistency of melted ice cream. Add more salt and hot sauce to taste. Pour into a small pot and keep warm.
- Heat 2 more tablespoons olive oil in a large saute pan and saute the New Zealand spinach until it wilts, about 2 minutes. Cover the pan for another 2 minutes, then uncover and turn off the heat.
- To cook the abalone, heat enough oil in a pan to come 1/4 inch up the sides. If you have a thermometer, look for 350 degrees. If you don’t, the oil is hot enough when a little flour tossed in sizzles immediately. Dredge the abalone coins in the flour and fry until golden, about 60-90 seconds per side. Drain on paper towels.
- To finish the dish, turn the heat to high on the New Zealand spinach and saute 1-2 more minutes.
- Put some saffron-corn sauce on the plate and top with a little spinach. Arrange the abalone coins on top and garnish with the sea beans. Serve with a crisp white wine, such as Pinot Grigio, Albarino, a Greek Assyrtiko or a French Sancerre.