Wednesday, October 10, 2012

FAQ: Ficoide glaciale

Ficoide glaciale, glacier lettuce, Mesembryanthemum crystallinum

What's that plant? and other frequently asked questions.

I lied about the "frequently" part. People rarely ask about this plant. At first glance, it just looks like the kind of fuzzy succulent you see in every drought-tolerant yard around.

Then I snap off a leaf and make people taste it. Ficoide glaciale, or "glacier lettuce," has a lemony, briny taste you don't expect from a land plant. It's not fuzzy at all, but covered with tiny bumps that look like frost and burst open when you bite into it, hitting your tongue with a tiny salt spray.

Stem and leaf close up of Ficoide glaciale, Mesembryanthemum crystallinum

What's that plant?

Mesembryanthemum crystallinum, also known as glacier lettuce, ficoide glaciale, or crystalline ice plant.

How do you eat it?

While I'd never heard of ficoide glaciale before I spotted it at the nursery, it seems to be a minor rock star among foodies. With its hints of brine and lemon, it's a popular pairing with seafood. Mary at Eating Stumptown describes a very tasty-sounding glacier lettuce salad with crab, strawberries, and balsamic (recipe on her blog). Clothilde at Chocolate & Zucchini goes a different direction, with a japanese-style vinaigrette and a poached egg on top. And of course, you can saute it (as always, I believe bacon fat is the best choice here), or use it as a robust salad green.

The saltiness made me wonder if the glacier lettuce could take the place of a prosciutto — for example, paired with melon — and I pulled likely candidates out of the fridge for taste tests. Figs were good, but their intense sweetness and crunchy seeds overpowered the glacier lettuce's taste and texture. Thin ribbons of a 3 year-old Parmigiano-Reggiano worked well from a taste perspective — more complement than contrast — but the dryness of the cheese didn't work with the crispy-smooth lettuce.

What worked incredibly well was watermelon. The two elements shared the juicy-crisp texture, while the watermelon's simple sweetness played perfectly against the tart brine of the glacier lettuce.

Where is it from?

The plant is originally from South Africa. I purchased my seedlings at Berkeley Hort; they were organically grown by Sweetwater Nursery in Sebastopol, CA.