I had a little food revelation the other day. I was up in Kake, Alaska with the guys from Alaska Seafood, and on one of the days we went to the home of a Tlingit woman named Kim Moler; Kim showed us a variety of traditional ways to preserve native foods. One of the things she showed us was a little jar of dried sticks.
Only they weren’t sticks. They were dried sea beans. Sea beans, also known as salicornia, samphire or saltwort, among other names — pickleweed being one of them — are one of my all-time favorite vegetables: Briny and crunchy, they are by far the best thing to add punch to a tuna or seafood salad, and they make great pickles, too. (There’s a recipe for pickled sea beans in my book.) Kim said she used these dehydrated sea beans as a seasoning all winter.
I tasted some. Very crunchy (salicornia has a lot of silica in it), briny and fun to eat. Interesting… It immediately occurred to me that you might be able to make “salt” from them, if you could grind the dried sea beans into a powder.
I couldn’t wait to give it a go once I returned home. I started with about 12 ounces of fresh sea beans.
Kim’s dried sea beans had turned olive drab, so I decided to blanch mine by boiling them in salty water for 2 minutes, then shocking them in an ice water bath. This set the color pretty well.
Then I put them in my dehydrator set to 105°F overnight. I wanted them completely dried out and crunchy. When they came out they looked like this:
This is basically what Kim’s looked like, albeit a little greener. Not sure if blanching did any good, but I’d like to think it did. From there, I had to figure out how to grind them. I started by breaking the sea beans into little pieces by hand and then stuffing them into a standard spice grinder. That worked pretty well, and by using a fine-mesh strainer I started to get some pretty green powder.
But I noticed there was a hard core that was not grinding very well. This I took care of the old-fashioned way: With a big ole’ mortar and pestle.
It took a good 4 to 5 minutes to grind everything to a fine powder, but it worked. The result is a unique, salty, vegetal powder that works beautifully sprinkled on white fish. I poached some rockfish in butter, then sprinkled the powder on top. Super pretty! The only drawback: A very low yield. Just about 12 ounces of fresh sea beans ground down into less than 1/4 cup of sea bean salt. But it was totally worth the effort.