A Cook's Garden: Don't Let Prickly Saltwort Scare You

Saltwort can be used in salads or cooked to taste like beet greens.
Saltwort can be used in salads or cooked to taste like beet greens. (Johnny's Selected Seeds)
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By Barbara Damrosch
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, July 23, 2009

Not all edible plants give a warm welcome -- or even a hint of encouragement. At first meeting, an artichoke does not look delicious. Faced with a pineapple, your first thought might be "Friend or foe?" This was my reaction the first time I grew saltwort, a sprawling plant about 12 inches tall, its leaves narrow and twiglike. I discovered its prickly nature while weeding with bare hands.

Many plants throughout the world are called saltwort. Though all are vaguely similar, they evolved separately to cope with salty or dry conditions, their succulent leaves and stems designed to conserve a supply of fresh water. My little crop was Salsola komarovii, native to salt marshes in Japan. (Other Salsola species include tumbleweed, a Ukrainian plant that long has been a pest of the American western plains, and agretti, an Italian vegetable.) It does not need a salty location to grow well and does fine in the garden, sown in successions throughout the growing season. In Japan, it is okahijiki, which translates as "land seaweed" and is valued as a vitamin-rich green, rolled up in sushi or used in salads and cooked dishes.

I tried the salad concept first, snipping off the tender tips and tossing them with lettuce, arugula and other soft, leafy matter. It was a nice variation, the threadlike fronds standing out distinctively. It made a beautiful garnish for appetizers and canapes. The flavor was subtle and hard to pin down: not salty, as some people claim, although maybe it would be if you'd just plucked it out of a marsh.

When I started applying heat to it, I began to take it more seriously as a vegetable. Using scissors, I snipped off the leafy tips and branches, discarding the firmer stems. I chopped these tender parts and added them to a large skillet in which sausage patties had been fried, leaving flavorsome drippings behind. Then I sprinkled in just a bit of water, covered the pan, and let the foliage cook down and absorb the pork flavor. The result: a dish that tasted a bit like beet greens, with its pleasantly crunchy texture still intact.

World traveler that it is, saltwort can play a part in many different cuisines. Asian seasonings such as soy sauce and sesame oil seem appropriate, but so do Italian ones such as garlic and olive oil. Even after cooking, it never becomes an amorphous blob of mystery greens and thereby makes an especially lovely bed on which to set a nice piece of meat or fish. Picture a whole fish on a platter, surrounded by delicate, green, seaweed-like strands, refined enough for the most elegant shore dinner.

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