Monk’s beard – the strange, charming, totally addictive green that comes in nourished bunches with plenty of grits attached – is my current religion. The fact that its season is almost finished kills me but, at the same time, it makes me happy. It feels liberating, like I can finally move on onto the next obsessive compulsive seasonal eating craze. Two more weeks or so, and I’ll be free.
But for now, and for the past two months to date, monk’s beard has been a very frequent guest at our table. We’ve eaten it simply blanched and tossed in oil and lemon, then served alongside stupid easy and terribly satisfying slices of toasted bread with butter and anchovies. We’ve eaten it in multiple takes with spaghetti – either sauteed in a puddle of strongly-scented anchovy butter, then topped with a landslide of fried breadcrumbs; or with clams and lots of lemon zest. In both cases, the green strands of monk’s beard would entangle with the pasta creating an unbreakable marriage of complementary flavours and textures. What a great little thing it is.
But what is monk’s beard, anyway? It’s a salt-tolerant plant that loves growing along the Mediterranean coast, or in general along shores located in temperate climates. The fact that it loves salt gives it its unique flavour, which is salty, but also a bit sour, umami, mineral, and kind of spinach-like, and just absolutely dependence-inducing. In the past, it was used to extract soda ash for making glass (the Latin name is indeed Salsola Soda). Now that they have figured out a better way to make glass, people can finally eat it, and thank goodness for that.
Its saltiness and crisp, crunchy texture sets it in a league of its own, but it is somehow reminiscent of things like samphire – although it is a bit of a stretch. It goes particularly well with anything fish and seafood, particularly anchovies, but also clams, mussels, scallops, bottarga and fish roe in general, and I love it just this way.
This is the dish I have been making the most whenever I had monk’s beard on hand, not just because it is the quickest, but also because it avoids the classic post-pasta carb coma, which means it makes a great lunch. It is inspired by a delicious antipasto I had at Rochelle Canteen in London. A cloud of monk’s beard greens is tamed by hot butter where a few anchovies have been melted, then everything is topped with an egg. The egg can be poached and runny, or it can be hard boiled. Either way, the yolk is going to enrich the greens and give them extra creaminess, and will require a hefty dose of good bread on hand to mop it all up at the end.
Monk’s Beard Anchovy Butter & Egg
Wash the monk’s beard thoroughly in plenty or running cold water to remove any trace of grits and sand. Once the water runs clean, drain and pat dry with a kitchen towel. Cut off the tough, reddish roots, then set the greens aside.
In a large skillet, melt the butter over medium-high heat, then add the anchovies dissolve them by stirring them with a wooden spoon. At this point, throw in the monk’s beard and allow to wilt into the hot butter, stirring frequently so that it cooks evenly. After three minutes, it should have cooked down in the same fashion spinach does – it should now look like a small bunch of green spaghetti, all mingled together. It’s done.
Season with a few grindings of black pepper, then plate. Top with the egg cooked the way you like, and seasoned with a pinch of salt. Serve hot.