Sea beet is the wild ancestor of the cultivated beet. It has been used in cooking in Denmark for nearly 7000 years, and with good reason: it's one of the beach's most delicious herbs.
Where to Find It
You can find sea beet all over Denmark, but especially on the coasts along the Great Belt. Look for it on beaches, in salt marshes, and by on gravel and rock shorelines in towns. It fares best when in the company of decomposing seaweed on the beach. On rocky beaches and along stone formations on the coast, you can find it a bit away from the water's edge, where the washed-up plants decompose.
Salt marshes, beaches, towns.
When to Find It
People normally pick sea beet in the spring and the beginning of summer when the leaves are young. Later the leaves become larger and rougher, but can still be used. The plant is especially bitter while it flowers from June until September. After withering in October, its bitterness fades and then you'll have a month to pick sea beet before the season ends.
Leaves: April, May, June, October.
How to Spot It
In its first year of life, sea beet doesn't get particularly large, but grows in what is called a rosette—a small twist of leaves. In its second year, however, it expands rapidly, sprouting many leaves and turning bushy. Eventually it will grow to one and a half meters tall with shiny, fleshy leaves that look like fresh spinach. The leaves have curly edges, light ribs, and are shaped like eggs or arrowheads. The flowers are small and green.
How to Pick It
Sea beet grows in great quantities in some places, and you can harvest a great deal in those spots. Pick the young leaves at the beginning of the season and large leaves later.
On the palate
Sea beet is fleshy, succulent, and can feel oily in the mouth. When raw, it tastes slightly salty with a hint of bitterness and notes of mustard and cress. The young leaves can also carry hints of anise. Once cooked, sea beet tastes like hearty spinach.
Sea beet has no particular scent.
Sea beet can tolerate blanching, steaming, sautéing, and similar cooking methods. The young leaves can be used raw, but they're good cooked as well. The large leaves have a bitterness that disappears after four or fives minutes on the heat, though they can be cooked longer. They are often quite tough, so remove the thick dorsal rib as you would with kale.
Sea beet can be used as a leafy green like spinach. It's good in almost all cuisines, from French to North African. Before you add it to a dish, however, it's a good idea to sauté it quickly in a little butter and taste it in its natural form. It’s delicious quickly sautéed in good olive oil as a topping for a lobster or shrimp bisque. A very versatile herb, sea beet pairs well with chestnuts, spicy sausages like chorizo, poached eggs, anchovies, smoked meats, grilled oily fish like herring or mackerel, cream, hard cheeses like parmesan, nuts, or apples. Try experimenting with it.
Store the sea beet in a sealed bag or airtight container inside the crisper drawer of your refrigerator, where it will stay fresh for one week.
Grassleaf orache can be substituted for sea beet.
Risk of misidentifying the plant
There is no risk of mistaking the plant for another dangerous or undesirable plant.