$8 to $40 per kilo
(Available through Fresh Origins)
Capers, seaweeds, and micro herbs
Winter in London is bleak. But inhospitable weather, along with a natural culinary inquisitiveness to search out new flavors and textures, has British chefs looking toward the sea for inspiration. From wild sea fennel to stone moss, English chefs are sprucing and spicing their winter menus with oceanic greens and herbs, a group of ancient succulents that grow on the British coasts (as well as the United States' Atlantic and Pacific shores).
Sea vegetables, often used to add a salty pop to the plate, are as nutritionally loaded—high in iron, calcium, iodine, and vitamins—as they are texturally intriguing. "Serving normal herbs on a seafood dish is fine, but sea herbs add a continuation to the dish," says Chef Paul Hood of London's Pollen Street Social. "We love the fact that we can source sea vegetables and herbs from the same waters that our seafood is from. And sea herbs bring a very different flavor to a dish."
In their already highly innovative menu, Pollen Street Social has played with everything from seaweed salsa verde and samphire ice cream to seaweed-infused roasted potatoes. Chef Jason Atherton, the creative genius behind the restaurant, pairs those potatoes with prawn-infused rice and cockles in his Roasted Red Mullet, Spanish Prawn Rice, Cockles, Seaweed Potatoes, and Samphire, a rice dish that layers sea flavor into every bite. And the Pollen Street presentation of Scallops Ceviche, Cucumber, Radish, Yuzu, Soy Dressing, and Apple includes a garnish composition of samphire, bronze fennel, and stone crop.
Pollen Street relies on a local forager to bring the restaurant a variety of sea lettuces. Samphire—also called sea beans, sea asparagus, and sea purslane—offers a bright and herbaceous crunch. The marsh plant has crisp, spiky green leaves, similar in shape and texture to miniature cacti. Named for the Catholic patron saint of fisherman, Saint Peter, samphire is often pickled or used raw as a garnish.
Wild sea fennel is a similarly salty plant, but it also shares flavor characteristics of its namesake, specifically a slight anise taste and herbaceous scent. As sea herbs go, sea fennel is one of the more versatile. Its fern-like leaves offer an elegant garnish, and when used in puréed and pickled applications its flavor really shines. In Chef Marcus Eaves' exploration of the sea at Pied à Terre, John Dory is paired with a number of alkaline flavors: wild sea fennel, grapefruit, squid, and black olives.
Chef Ashley Palmer of Dinner is also a fan of matching sea herbs with seafood applications, and uses sea purslane and stone moss (or stone crop) in several dishes on the restaurant's historical-inspired menu. Named for its ground-hugging tendencies, stone crop is an herbaceous seaweed whose water-storing leaves offer a slight cucumber-like texture and flavor. Like many of its sea vegetable brethren, it's often used in gardening and medicine. But we like it best in the kitchen. At Dinner, Palmer serves a Buttered Crab Loaf, Crab Cucumber, Pickled Lemon, and Stone Crop, to liven up the rich, breaded-and-fried crab dish with fresh flavor.
Sea plants also offer salinity in non-seafood preparations. Chef Atul Kochhar creates a stone moss jus at Benares, his fine-dining Indian restaurant. Rather than pair the dish with more oceanic flavor, Kochhar uses the jus to brighten Pan-seared Duck and Cabbage with Coconut and Tamarind for an earthy and bright riff on surf 'n turf.
Whether used as an elegant garnish, a pop of salty flavor, or as a textural element, the wide spread of sea herbs and lettuces shows that the ocean's bounty is more than fresh fish. It's the (sea's) oyster of vegetable flavor.