Wednesday, 5 February 2014

Steamed Alexanders

  Up until the sixteenth century, Alexanders (Smyrnium olusatrum) were widely cultivated and used in place of celery, though as celery was developed to produce a milder, thick-stalked plant, the use of Alexanders has been in decline.  In the wild Alexanders are predominantly found within a few miles of the coast, which is thought to be because of their inability to sustain the harsher inland frosts.  If you've ever driven through coastal areas in Devon or Cornwall you are bound to have seen Alexanders in great profusion by the roadside, they are quite literally everywhere.  By the roadside is where I found these Alexanders, though not in the idyllic countryside of the south-west, but next to a very busy road in suburban Hastings - coastal/urban foraging.  They are also commonly found in colonies on cliff edges and sea walls.

Care should be taken when picking these as they are in the dangerous umbellifer family, which contains the deadly Hemlock Water-dropwort (Oenanthe crocata) and Hemlock (Conium maculatum).  Having said this, it would take an almighty lack of care and judgement to get the Hemlocks confused with Alexanders - if there is anything you could mistake it for it would be Ground-elder (Aegopodium podagraria) or Wild Angelica (Angelica sylvestris), both of which are edible anyway.  This plant is fairly easy to distinguish from the two aforementioned edible species, but do check your guidebooks carefully before consuming.

Vibrant green colour of the young shoots

Pick off the leaves, leaving just the stems

For this recipe it's only the stems that we're interested in, so strip off the leaves, but by all means use them in another dish, as they are just as tasty as the stems - my leftover Alexanders leaves were used alongside some Three-cornered Leek (Allium triquetrum) in a lentil, sausage and chorizo casserole, see here:


- Alexanders stems
- Butter
- Salt / pepper
- Lemon juice

Once you've stripped all the leaves off the stems, cut in to bite-sized pieces and put in a steaming basket or sieve suspended above a pan of boiling water.  Steam for 5-10 minutes depending on how crunchy / fragrant you like them, mix in a small knob of butter, season with salt and pepper and squeeze over a bit of lemon juice, though not too much, as you don't want to overpower the flavour of the Alexanders.

A small bowl of steamed Alexanders makes for great great finger food and would be lovely alongside a piece of fish as a main, they have a sweet yet fragrant taste that is unlike anything I've had before - very pleasant indeed.  I steamed mine for ten minutes, but next time I think I'll reduce that down to 6/7 minutes to retain more of the unique, mildly-spiced Alexanders flavour.

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