Food that Tastes Like a Place: Green Food from the Beach

Jul 20, 2017

David Haddad started a series of pop-up dinners a couple years ago called The Gathered Table. I went to one recently and was totally smitten by the variety of local wild foods used as accents or vehicles for infusing flavor. Bayberry for smoking, or using the buds brined for capers, Beach Rose, Beach peas, spruce tips... 

I wanted to forage with him, to see what he sees. He told me to meet him at the beach. He’d be the guy eating by the sea grass.

(NB: This is an archival piece from 2015 -  the Gathered Table  pop up dinners no longer exist)

"You are the guy eating weird things! What are you eating?"

"We’re eating sea sandwort, and it tastes like delicious salted cucumber. We’re going to make a cocktail for Saturday's dinner out of juiced sea sandwort - actually we call it beach cucumber – it’s a better name, we re-branded it. And we have some beach rose vodka we made last year. We’re going to mix with it and serve it over ice."

That so-called beach cucumber is a succulent plant that grows like a bright green garland, only upright. It looks a little like a sedum, but they aren’t related. It’s something the rest of us have been using to decorate sand castles with all these years. But I can testify, it really does taste like cucumber. In fact, running along the beach wall - all manner of edible plants are marbled into what looks like just a tangle of vegetation. 

“Today we’re looking for some beach peas, which are about 30 yards from us. We’re going to try to find some upland cress, which is like water cress but grows inland. We’re also going to get some beach rose flowers that I’m going to use to make some ice cream,” David said.

That’s Froza Ragosa ice cream, and David is going to share that recipe with us. The list of things he makes with a beach rose is impressive: butter, oil, salt, pickled petals, vodka.... and he'll even brine the seeded hips for an olive substitute.

It’s a creative challenge using local things for standard ingredients that just don’t grow around here, like using tender spruce tips for a citrus flavor. It’s almost a game.

“We just wanted to cook food of Cape Cod, and food that tasted like a place," David said. "So we tried to find things that grew around the ocean, and things that are here that aren’t other places.”

David studied history in college, but instead of going on to Law school, he decided to switch tracks and go to culinary school in Vermont – which is where he met Noel Shumway, his co-chef who describes himself this way: “I’m the dog who’s just following around, and he’s like: 'Try this off the ground,' and I say, 'Sure, why not, if you're eating it.' And I try to make a mental note of it and go back to it later. And we’re like, oh what shall we put on this dish?”

Noel may be the taster but they don’t take risks. If they find something completely unknown to them  - they bring samples home to research.

“Originally we would go around and look at stuff, look online, try stuff out, taste it but not swallow it... because my Mom would kill me if I ended up dying in the middle of the woods."

I’m relieved by this attitude, as we move on to more things on the foraging list.

“Beach peas ! You can see the purple flowers, that’s how you can spot them. As you can see they’re growing the whole length of this dune.

“I’ve seen them a million times, and I don’t think I’ve ever - "

“I have too, and until you look…you want one ?”

“ Yeah, I do!  Oh my god,  they’re great. They’re a little bit sassier.”  

“Yeah, they have a peppery spice to them."

David uses the flowers for garnish, and the tendrils for salads. You can wilt them, or sautee the pods, too. Or just eat the peas… Wild beach pea or lathyrus japonicas can be used in all its parts, although maybe not as a main staple, since excessive consumption of the peas themselves can result in a neurotoxin illness  - although it’s extremely rare. And by excessive consumption I mean more than 30% of your diet - that’s a lot of peas - eaten over weeks and months…. Which would also mean you weren’t leaving any beach peas for anyone else.

Harvest time for beach peas is coming to a close. David says they start to get a little woody and a little buggy in another couple of weeks.

Next, we head out for David’s secret stash of sea beans.

“I mean they don’t look like a bean, per se. They’re a succulent, they grow out of the ground, they look like thin green fingers, and they’re salty, too.”

“They’re so salty.”

“Yeah, they use the salt water, that’s what they live off.

“What else do you do with them?

“You can pickle them. We made bread-and-butter sea beans for a clam dish.”

David will also use them as a salt seasoning, or chopped up on sashimi. He thinks they’re best to eat raw though, especially when they’re young.

“When you find these things, you've got to remember where they are. You're like, 'Alright, this is the only place I know it exists.' It's not like you're in a store and you can go pick out fruits and veggies. You've got to know where it is, you’ve got to be protective of it, you don’t want to take too much, where it's not going to come back. You just take a little bit, and make sure the roots are still in. You farm it that way."

"Everything is right in front of you. You’ve  just got to open your eyes.”

Here’s the recipe for Froza Ragosa ice cream: 

petals from 20 beach roses 
6 C cream 
6 C whole milk 
12 egg yolks (local is best) 
3.5 C sugar 
Pinch Salt 

Simmer cream, add petals and turn off heat, let steep for 30 minutes. 
Strain the cream to remove petals.  Add cream, milk and sugar in a pot, cook 
over medium heat until mixture reaches a simmer, stirring occasionally, 
take off heat. Add 1 cup of liquid to egg yolks, whisk to incorporate. Add 
egg mixture back to the rest of the milk/cream liquid, Whisk and store in 
the refrigerator until cool. Spin in ice cream maker. Makes 1.5 gallons.