Chainey brairs — try them, they are good

Published 12:44 am Saturday, June 3, 2017

We were on the North Carolina coast this past week and good friends had us over for dinner. Larry was doing a flounder in parchment from a Lee Brothers’ cookbook. I have the book from several years back but have never cooked from it. My friend said he was to use chainey briars but had substituted asparagus. I had never heard of chainey briars. This peaked my curiosity. They are apparently cat briars by another name and found along the Carolina coast, especially the low country of South Carolina. We are on the northern edge of that culture (think rice, palm trees, gulla-gechee, and alligators) and we were at our beach house and I decided to do some foraging; not hard since the chainey briars are all over the bushes beside the path that leads to the beach. I cut several and used them in several ways the next few days.

The September 2014 issue of ‘Garden and Gun’ has an article on chainey briars. They note that they are also called catbrier, bull briar, and greenbrier. It is the curly green native vine Smilax bona-nox, readily identifiable by the spade-shaped leaves that distinguish it from the other vines in the same terrain. One uses the tender ends of the vines and can eat them raw. It can be grilled, quickly blanched or sautéed in olive oil. They note that the community cookbooks of the rural sea islands, like Edisto and Yonges, use them in recipes. It does not show up even in farmers’ markets so you will have to forage for it. If you are going to the beach this summer, no problem. One can use the smilax growing in our woods and byways, but the soft tips are harder to harvest as they are usually up in the trees. They say that chainey briar was once common in home kitchens.

At McCrady’s, one of Charleston’s premier white tablecloth restaurants, the chef, Daniel Heinze, grills it and tosses it with watercress stems, serving it like a salad, with a tarragon puree and green tomato marmalade.


Grilled Chainey Briar by Daniel Heinze, ‘Garden and Gun’ September 2014


20 chainey briar shoots

2 tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil

Salt and pepper

20 watercress stems

1 green tomato, thinly sliced

1 fresh lemon


Lightly coat chainey briar with olive oil and salt and pepper. Cook over a charcoal grill until tender, about 1-2 minutes. Toss watercress stems, green tomato, and chainey briar in a mixing bowl, and season with lemon, oil, salt, and pepper.


Another Charleston chef, Slightly North of Broad’s Frank Lee has been picking it for twenty years from a path to the beach where he lives. At home he blanches the shoots in salt water—literally for seconds—and gives them a quick toss with olive oil and garlic in a skillet. At the restaurant he tosses the blanched chainey briar with a vinaigrette and uses the cold salad as a garnish for hanger steak or soft-shell crabs. He does admit the name is a problem. When we put greenbrier shoots on the menu, our guests don’s know what to think. If we call it wild asparagus, there’s no problem.

There are 300 or more species of smilax in the world, 20 native to the eastern US. They are known as greenbrier, catbrier, bull brier, chinabrier and in Spanish, zarza parilla. The root has been used to make sarsaparilla. The name derives from the Greeks. Unrequieted love of Krokus and the wood nymph nymph, Smilax, resulted in the gods turning them into the flower crocus and the vine smilax.

When Edna Lewis was the chef at Middleton Place Restaurant near Charleston she served a signature dish, flounder in parchment with shaved vegetables. The Lee brothers give her credit in their cookbook.


Flounder in Parchment with haved Vegetables (Shaved Radish and Chainey Briar), The Lee Bros. Charleston Kitchen, by Matt Lee & Ted Lee

1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil

1 tablespoon dry white wine, such as sauvignon blanc or pinot grigio

2 teaspoons white wine vinegar

Kosher salt

2 ounces chainey briar (or about 3 stalks asparagus, shaved lengthwise with a vegetable peeler)

2 ounces radishes (about 3), shaved with a vegetable peeler

4 sheets parchment paper, about 13 x 16 inches

4 (4 to 6 ounce) fillets skinless flounder or other tender white-fleshed fish, such as sole or snapper

3 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into 8 pats

1 lemon, cut into 8 slices

Freshly ground black pepper

1 large egg white

  1. Preheat the oven to 400°F.
  2. In a shallow bowl, whisk the olive oil with the white wine, white wine vinegar, and ¼ teaspoon salt. Add the chainey briar with the radishes, toss to coat with the dressing, and reserve.
  3. For each of the fillets, fold the parchment paper in half lengthwise so it opens like a book, with the seam at the left. Place a fillet with its leftmost, longest edge in the crease of the seam and centered vertically. Season each fillet with 2 pinches of salt. Place 2 pats of butter and 2 slices of lemon on top of each fillet. Grind some black pepper over the fish.
  4. Make an egg wash by whisking the egg white with 1 tablespoon of water. Brush the three open edges of the bottom layer of parchment with the wash, and lay the top side of parchment over the fish top. Press on the edges of the parchment to seal. Lift the bottom left corner of the parchment up, and fold it over crisply to create a small triangular fold. Then place your index finger in the center of the long edge of that fold. Continue folding the edge of the paper from the middle of the previous fold until you have sealed up the fish in a half-moon-shape package.
  5. When all the parchment packages are sealed, put them on a rimmed baking sheet and bake for 12 minutes. Remove from the oven and let rest for 3 minutes. Toss the chainey briar and radishes again in the dressing, then cut each package open. Remove the lemon slices (if desired) and strew a portion of the chainey briar and radishes over the fish. and serve immediately, placing each packet of fish directly on a dinner plate.