It’s a vegetable of many names. When we bought it in our Umbrian village market they called it agretti, but you’ll also hear the same thing called roscano, ariscolo, riscoli, or liscari, or rospici, or barbe di frate (friar’s beards) or maybe even the inexplicable senape del monaco (monk’s mustard). At first sight we suspected it was some sort of onion or chive. The Italians soon set us straight. ‘It’s greens’ —like spinaci only better. Try some!'
So we did. The taste is slightly salty, faintly bitter, but nice; what makes it unique and addictive is the consistency: not mere boiled leaves in your mouth, but something more like fine Asian noodles—think of it as linear spinach. Besides being delicious, agretti are astoundingly virtuous: low calories, lots of iron, calcium, and other minerals, lots of vitamin B3 and C. It’s mildly diuretic, mopping up those awful triglycerides and cholesterol in your blood. Popeye could have beat the whole Red Army with a can of this.
You’ll seldom find agretti in other European countries. There isn’t even a name for it in English; it’s often referred to as ‘saltwort’, but it’s really only one of many varieties of saltworts. For years we became so accustomed to doing without agretti that we almost forgot about it. Fortunately though, you can grow your own if you have a reasonably warm climate. In Italy they get to be over two feet high. In our southwest France garden (with a climate similar to the Carolinas) they’re a little smaller, but just as good. They like a lot of water. Get the seeds from Semilandia in Italy (these worked very well for me), Franchi-Seeds of Italy (UK) or any number of online sites in the U.S.
Though they look flimsy and spindly, they don’t shrink in cooking like other greens. In fact the garden space you allot to agretti will be more productive than spinach or chard. The seeds can be a problem. Lots of gardeners complain about low germination rates, and the seeds do not keep very long. Yours might fail one year, and be brilliant the next.
So what do you do with it? Facilissimo: pull off the green bits and the most flexible parts of the stems, and throw out the rest of the stems. Wash it off well in a colander. Boil it for a few minutes, throw on a little olive oil and a squirt of lemon. Or better, boil it for three minutes, drain, and then sauté it with very little oil, lemon and maybe some garlic.
Agretti are becoming very trendy in Italian restaurants these days, though there really aren’t any classic recipes. It’s great as a side dish with any kind of seafood, or (like its close cousin salicornia, marsh samphire) with seafood antipasti. One popular salad features agretti and smoked salmon. You can put it on pasta (try it with dried tomatoes), or in an omelette or quiche. Use it in Asian dishes too. The Japanese saltwort oka hijiki , or ‘land seaweed’, is practically the same thing; the Japanese like it as a cold salad with soy sauce or vinegar.