Salsola soda, more commonly known by its Italian names ‘agretti’ and ‘barba di frate ‘(friar’s beard, or monk’s beard), or otherwise known as ‘saltwort’ in English, is a wild weed native to the Mediterranean basin. Here in Greece it’s known as ‘almira’ (αλμύρα), referring to its slightly briny and salty taste (with ‘almira’ coming from ‘almiros’ (αλμυρός), meaning ‘salty’) and the fact that this plant mostly grows along salty coastal areas. The plant is harvested and sold in bunches only during a short season in spring, which can make it quite the rare find compared to other wild greens more commonly sold at the farmer’s market. In Greece, if you were to find this delicious seaside veg served at a taverna, you will most likely find it simply boiled, drizzled with some oil and lemon and served as any other ‘horta salad’, while in Italy, spaghetti with agretti is a popular way to consume these tasty greens.
I agree that this Mediterranean vegetable, with its slightly sour and briny flavours and pleasant crunch, doesn’t need much and is best when shortly boiled and sprinkled with nothing but a bit of extra-virgin olive oil and a few drops of lemon, or mixed into a simple pasta dish. However, since it grows so close to the shore, salsola soda has a natural affinity to any type of fish and seafood as well. Of course, you can simply serve said agretti salads and pastas alongside a bit of fish, but for my recipe today, I’ve combined it with some steamed mussels and a simple olive oil, lemon and mustard vinaigrette. It makes for a great appetizer, side dish, or simple light lunch for two that will immediately transport you to a Mediterranean island or beachside restaurant.
Tip: Actually not that much into seafood? Replace the mussels with about 200grams of cooked diced bacon or pancetta instead, or simply eat it with the dressing and perhaps some cherry tomatoes alone.
Agretti (Salsola Soda) with Mussels
- 350g agretti
- 1kg mussels (weight with shells)
- 150ml dry white wine
- 150ml water
- 2 garlic cloves, roughly chopped
- For the vinaigrette:
- 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
- 1 tablespoon lemon juice
- 2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
- Prep: wash agretti and remove roots and thicker tough (if any) stems. Wash and scrub the mussels and remove beards and other debris.
- Add wine, water and garlic cloves to a large stockpot and bring to a simmer. Once the liquid starts to bubble, add the cleaned mussels and cover. Simmer until mussels have opened (should only take a few minutes). Remove from heat and allow to cool until safe to touch. Reserve the cooking liquid.
- In the meantime, bring another pot of fresh water to a boil and boil the agretti for 4 – 5 minutes. Remove from heat, drain and allow to cool if you wish to eat the dish as a cold salad.
- Make the dressing by combining oil, lemon juice and mustard.
- Remove mussels from their shells and add to the agretti. Mix with the dressing and a few tablespoons of the mussels’ cooking liquid to flavour the greens.