Seaweed isn’t just for sushi
June 11, 2007
Most Americans know seaweed as two things – a wrapper on a California roll and a slimy obstacle en route to an ocean dip.
But along the nation’s coastlines, small and dedicated groups of seaweed enthusiasts are turning what they like to call “sea vegetables” into a thriving cottage industry. Not to mention some pretty tasty dinners.
“People who live by the coast are often the least likely to want to try seaweed,” says James Jungwirth, a Williams, Ore., man who harvests his own seaweed and likes to snack on brown kelp fronds.
“They wrinkle up their noses at it because they’re thinking of the rotting piles of seaweed that end up on the beach,” he says. But Jungwirth thinks that’s like not wanting to eat vegetables just because some end up in compost piles.
Most commercial seaweed – the sort used to make the mountains of sushi sold daily in America or that is processed to make thickeners that end up in everything from baked goods to ice cream – comes from Asia.
But seaweed proponents like to point out that varieties gathered from America’s coasts offer a wide world of culinary options.
Recommended Stories For You
“I love the taste of it,” says Linda Conroy, who runs a seaweed harvesting trip for women each summer on Lopez Island, off the coast of Washington. “Every seaweed tastes different. My favorite seaweed is the giant kelp. My whole entire body comes alive.”
Part of what she does is teach people how to treat seaweed as a mainstream ingredient. Which means thinking beyond sushi and miso soup, another common Japanese dish that includes seaweed.
Conroy offers simple recipes, such as gomashio, a Japanese condiment made from crushed dried nori seaweed, toasted sesame seeds and sometimes sea salt. It often is added to salads, rice and soups. She even has a seaweed oatmeal cookie recipe.
Seaweed also is a natural for many salads and soups, which is how Donna Bishop likes to sneak it into her husband’s diet.
The 60-year-old Gualala, Calif., grandmother often gets up before dawn to clamber down a cliff, don a wet suit and plunge into the chilly ocean in search of nori and sea palm seaweed. Some she’ll eat, the rest she’ll sell dried or fresh at a farmers market.
“My own husband won’t eat seaweed,” she says. At least not knowingly.
Bishop likes to use kombu, a large variety of kelp, as others do bay leaves. She adds it to soups while they simmer, then discards it before serving. Or she’ll grind up dried seaweed and use it to season her soups and pastas.
And to hook those who doubt seaweed’s culinary virtues, she makes a sort of trail mix by roasting sea palm (a Pacific Coast seaweed) and dried nori (the sort used in sushi), then toss it with sugar-coated almonds and a bit of salt.
It’s so good, she says her grandchildren not only eat it, they help her harvest the seaweed.
Dried seaweed is widely available at natural foods stores, where it can sell for $5 an ounce. Harvesting it yourself is much cheaper, but it’s also slippery, dangerous, backbreaking work, says Jennifer Mondragon, a marine biologist in Juneau, Alaska.
“I’d suggest people start off buying it,” she says. You don’t have to be trained to harvest seaweed, she says, but you do need to know what kind you’re looking for, whether you need a license, what’s in season, if the area is polluted and when the tide is right.
She and her husband, fellow marine biologist Jeff Mondragon, wrote a book called “Seaweeds of the Pacific Coast” to help. And because so many people requested ideas, they included recipes, such as corn chowder and cucumber salad.
Hijiki Seaweed Salad
Hijiki seaweed is available at natural foods stores, some large grocers and online. It has a savory flavor and a chewy texture, which are nicely complemented by strong seasonings, such as the vinegar and mustard dressing in this salad.
• 1Ú2 cup dried hijiki seaweed
• 1 T. soy sauce
• 2 T. sesame oil
• 1 large yellow onion, diced
• 1 large carrot, cut into thin rounds
• 1 cup frozen peas
• 1Ú4 cup whole-grain mustard
• 1Ú4 cup cider vinegar
• 3 T. peanut butter
Place the hijiki in a medium saucepan and cover with warm water. Let stand off the stove 5 minutes, then drain and repeat.
After the second 5-minute soak, drain the hijiki and return it to the saucepan. Cover again with warm water. Add the soy sauce, then bring to a boil over high heat. Lower heat to simmer and cook 30 minutes, adding water as needed to maintain the level.
Meanwhile, heat the oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add the onion, carrot and peas and saute until the onions are lightly browned and the carrots tender, about 7 minutes.
When the vegetables have cooked, transfer them to a medium bowl and set aside.
To make the dressing, in a small bowl whisk together the mustard, vinegar and peanut butter. Set aside.
When the hijiki has finished cooking, drain it and add it to the vegetables. Toss, then drizzle with the dressing and toss again to coat evenly. Refrigerate 1 hour to let flavors combine.
Plenty of seaweeds in the sea
– and the store
Sea scavenging not your style? There’s plenty of dried seaweeds available at natural foods stores and some large grocers. Here’s a primer to some of the most common varieties and what to do with them. With the exception of nori, most dried seaweed should be soaked until tender, then rinsed and drained before using.
• Nori: This red algae variety is one of the most popular. It is mostly sold in thin sheets and has a very mild flavor. It’s most common use is as a wrapper for sushi. It can be eaten by itself as a snack, or toasted and crumbled over soups or vegetables.
• Dulse: Strongly flavored, salty and chewy, this red seaweed is common to the coast of Maine. Try it diced and sauteed with greens and garlic. Some fans even enjoy the nutty flavor of dulse in oatmeal cookies.
• Kelp: This is a generic term for brown algae. Large kelps, such as kombu and wakame, can be used in miso soup or like bay leaves as a seasoning in stews. Some people add it to rice during cooking, then discard it. In Japan, wakame is used raw in salads.
• Hijiki: Most often sold shredded and dried, hijiki is good in stir-fries, salads and other vegetables dishes. It has a chewy texture and assertive flavor that pairs well with oily foods and strong flavorings.