Bite of the samphire

Mark Hix on a seaside vegetable that has a unique taste and texture.
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Indy Lifestyle Online

This time last year I was lying in the salt marshes near Maldon in Essex. It was 3am and I'd gone along with some wildfowling colleagues. I was unarmed and chilled to the bone, waiting for wild duck to give themselves up. A couple of hours later, with no wildfowl in our bags and still shivering, daylight revealed that we'd been lying among thousands of pounds' worth of samphire. When I serve samphire as a vegetable or in a salad, people often assume it's some sort of exotic or expensive vegetable. In fact, the succulent green stems and knobbly leaves grow like weeds along coastal salt marshes and muddy estuaries from around June to August.

This time last year I was lying in the salt marshes near Maldon in Essex. It was 3am and I'd gone along with some wildfowling colleagues. I was unarmed and chilled to the bone, waiting for wild duck to give themselves up. A couple of hours later, with no wildfowl in our bags and still shivering, daylight revealed that we'd been lying among thousands of pounds' worth of samphire. When I serve samphire as a vegetable or in a salad, people often assume it's some sort of exotic or expensive vegetable. In fact, the succulent green stems and knobbly leaves grow like weeds along coastal salt marshes and muddy estuaries from around June to August.

I have to admit that I don't serve up in restaurants what I've picked in my spare time. Picking samphire is a pretty tedious job and there's no way I could collect enough. Anyway, most of the land it grows on is protected so that foragers don't damage the wildlife. That, along with the shortness of the English season, is why we pay so much for something that can be gathered for nothing. As far as I know, any samphire we buy is wild, not cultivated, but in hotel and restaurant kitchens we tend not to appreciate the value of wild produce because we order it by fax or phone and it just turns up. Some fishmongers sell it as a vegetable, as do a few specialist greengrocers. But, if it's allowed – and you're heading for the coast – it's easiest just to pick the samphire yourself.

In East Anglia, where it's considered a delicacy, the locals eat samphire as a summery starter, simply steamed, roots and all, with melted butter. It can also be frozen or preserved the more traditional way – pickled in some white wine vinegar and a little sugar.

Despite its appearance, samphire isn't actually seaweed but a sea vegetable like sea kale and sea spinach. It has a salty, natural marine flavour (equivalent in vegetarian terms to the oyster) and a crunchy texture, making it the perfect accompaniment for simply cooked fish or shellfish dishes.

Samphire is also known as glasswort because it was once used in the manufacture of glassware. The plants were dried, then burnt, and it was the ash, with its high soda content, that went into glass-making. Remember: samphire can be extremely salty, so don't add any salt when cooking.

Depending on how tender the shoots and stems are, they need to be picked over to remove any woody stems and discoloured shoots, and then washed.

Prawn risotto with samphire

Serves 4

If you live on the coast you could theoretically get both main ingredients free, or at least buy them locally and cheaply. If, like me, you live inland in a city, you'll need to get in the car and drive, or ask a fishmonger nicely for them. Frozen raw prawns will do the job and you can use the shells for the stock. Alternatively, you could try using langoustines (Dublin Bay prawns) or lobster for this dish.

500g of prawns – fresh and live if possible – or frozen, raw tiger prawns

For the stock
shells from the prawns
half medium onion, peeled and roughly chopped
half medium leek, roughly chopped and washed
half large carrot, peeled and roughly chopped
2 cloves of garlic, peeled and roughly chopped
10g unsalted butter
a pinch of saffron strands
a few sprigs of thyme
half tsp fennel seeds
5 peppercorns
1 bay leaf
15g tomato purée
75ml white wine
1litre fish stock (good quality cubes work well)
For the risotto
30g butter
200g carnaroli rice (arborio if not available)
500ml approximately of hot prawn stock
75g samphire, trimmed and washed
the cooked prawn meat
a few sprigs of tarragon, finely chopped
30g unsalted butter
15ml double cream

If you are using fresh prawns, cook them in boiling salted water for 2 minutes. Drain them, let them cool, remove the heads and peel the tails. Put the meat in the fridge until you serve the risotto and keep the shells for the stock.

To make the stock, use a large saucepan and cook the prawn shells, onion, leek, carrot and garlic in the butter until lightly coloured. Add the rest of the ingredients, bring to the boil and simmer for 1 hour, skimming occasionally.

Strain the stock through a fine-meshed sieve. The stock should have a strong flavour – if it does not, reduce until the flavour is concentrated. You should be left with about half a litre.

To make the risotto, take a thick-bottomed pan, melt the butter in it and add the rice. Stir with a wooden spoon for a minute or so on a low heat. Gradually add the stock a little at a time, stirring constantly and ensuring that each addition of liquid has been fully absorbed by the rice before adding the next.

Season with a little salt and pepper during cooking. The risotto should be of a moist consistency, and not too stodgy.

When the rice is almost cooked, add the samphire, the prawn meat and the tarragon. Stir well, cook for another minute or so, then add the butter and cream. Check the consistency and add more seasoning and stock if necessary. Serve.

Deep-fried samphire

Serves 4 as a snack

After visiting Japan and eating tempura at Japanese restaurants in London, it dawned on me that samphire must be delicious deep-fried. A bit like the famous shredded zucchini they serve at Harry's Bar. You could use a packet tempura batter mix, available from most big supermarkets or oriental grocers.

150g samphire, trimmed, washed and dried
lemon wedges to serve
vegetable oil for deep-frying
For the batter
1 small egg
60g plain flour
pinch of cayenne pepper
about 100ml ice-cold water

First make the batter. Put the egg into a bowl and whisk a little to break it up. Add the flour and cayenne pepper and gently mix, then slowly add the iced water until you have formed a smooth batter.

Meanwhile, heat the vegetable oil in a deep-fat fryer or heavy-bottomed pan to 160°C. This is a bit messy: a handful at a time, put the samphire into the batter. Make sure all the stems are covered, then drain the excess off, letting the batter run through your fingers.

Carefully drop the samphire into the oil a few pieces at a time, stirring the oil with a slotted spoon to break the samphire up. When crispy, drain on some kitchen paper and repeat with the rest of the samphire. Serve with lemon wedges.

Fillet of pollack with samphire and cockles

Serves 4

Until international fishing regulations control the mass netting process that kills so many baby fish, the future looks very uncertain for many species. Chefs are exploring alternatives to fish such as cod, and in the process we are finding some forgotten, but equally tasty alternatives.

Pollack – not to be confused with coley, which is sometimes called pollock – is an excellent, cheap and plentiful substitute for cod. It is mostly caught around the Channel Islands and the south-west coast, and is generally smaller than cod. But try to buy fillets from a large fish, as it will be less flaky and easier to cook.

Fresh cockles are not used very often, probably because of those seaside memories of eating them mixed with vinegar and sand from polystyrene containers. If you can find live cockles (clams or mussels will do), they will need washing well to remove any sand. The best way to do this is to keep them running under cold water for about an hour, giving them an occasional stir with your hand, so that they release as much sand as possible.

4 x 200g pollack portions from a large fish, boned and skinned
200-250g cockles or clams, washed
100g samphire, prepared and washed
50ml white wine
175g unsalted butter, diced
vegetable oil for cooking

Lightly season the pollack with salt and pepper. Heat a little oil in a large non-stick pan and fry the pollack fillets for about 3 minutes on each side, until they are nicely coloured (if the fillets are very thick you will need to finish them in a hot oven for another 5 to 10 minutes). Meanwhile, give the cockles a final rinse and put them into a large pan with the white wine. Cover with a tight-fitting lid and cook over a high heat until they begin to open, shaking the pan and giving them an occasional stir. Drain the cockles in a colander, reserving the liquid and pouring it back into the pan. Add the samphire and butter to the pan and keep stirring until the butter has melted. Return the cockles to the pan (they will not need seasoning as the samphire will do that) and stir well.

To serve, carefully remove the pollack from the pan with a fish slice and spoon the clams, samphire and butter over the top.

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