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.
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.