The oft-overlooked sea plant takes its rightful place on serving dishes at top-notch restaurants
By Rachel Ellner
In an industrious place like the ocean — with fish that never sleep, cephalopods groping for food, and mammals migrating halfway around the world — seaweed seems like a lazy bystander. Most often, by the time we see it up close, it has washed up on the beach, looking like used wrapping paper after a big party.
Yet seaweed is an integral part of our oceans’ ecosystem. In fact, no life on earth would exist without the oxygen that seaweed’s algal ancestors spent a billion years generating. And while these “sea vegetables” — which are packed full of an astounding array of nutrients — have been enjoyed by many cultures for thousands of years, Americans have been slow to warm to this salty sensation. True, with the rising popularity of Japanese food in the last decade, many have had seaweed-laced miso soup or one of the processed seaweed salads that is prepared off-site and served at many sushi joints. But Ric Orlando of New World Home Cooking in Saugerties is just one local chef who is serious about taking seaweed to the next level, using it to enhance soups, salads, and a whole array of appetizers. “We encourage people to revel in taste sensations,” he says about his many seaweed concoctions.
Hiziki, a type of spiked black angel-hair sea pasta, is used for stuffed, seared tofu. Sun-dried tomatoes and basil make the dish a marriage of Italian and Japanese flavors. “Hiziki is the easiest to use, the small twiggy pieces,” says Orlando. “You can toss it with mirin [a caramel-sweet liquid made from fermented rice], soy sauce, and sesame oil for a great salad.” Arame, with a similarly rich and dark flavor, is also used for salad making.
To varying degrees, sea vegetables change consistency when soaked or heated. They also lend different tastes when either subtly seasoned or used as seasoning. Kumbo mildly sweetens and draws out flavor when added to simmering rice. Nori typically is used for wrapping sushi. But when shredded and toasted after being brushed with olive oil and sprinkled with sea salt, nori becomes a black twinkling confetti that makes a scrumptious snack.
Orlando has been exploring sea vegetables for decades. “Back in the ’70s, my macrobiotic girlfriend was using a lot of dulse and kelp to make little soups and salads that I found appealing,” says Orlando, who, as a punk rock musician in New Haven, Connecticut, was beginning to venture into the kitchen.
By the ’80s, he was perfecting his cooking chops at the famed Harvest restaurant in Cambridge’s Harvard Square. Chefs there encouraged him to explore ethnic markets.
“There was a rash of Asian markets — you could go and see all these seaweeds,” he says.
“Everything was inexpensive. It was like an amusement park for a young cook.” Orlando made a more-focused study of Japanese cuisine and reveled in its abundant use of sea vegetables. Of course, the Harvest chefs practiced what they preached, too. “The lobster came packed in seaweed,” Orlando recalls. “We steamed the lobster with the seaweed to give it a strong, distinct flavor of the ocean. For clambakes, I lined the barrels with seaweed so it would give out that great aroma, that unami flavor.”
Now, whenever a customer scrunches his nose at seaweed, Orlando asks, “Which would you rather have: something from the beautiful salty ocean or something that rolls around in dirt with the worms?”
New World Seaweed Salad
1 cup hiziki (black seaweed) or arame (brown “twig” seaweed) , 2 Tbsp finely chopped scallions , 1 Tbsp grated ginger , 1 small Thai chile, sliced into thin rings or Â½ tsp crushed red pepper flakes , 2 Tbsp sesame seeds , 2 Tbsp dark soy sauce or tamari , 1 Tbsp toasted sesame oil , 1 Tbsp rice vinegar , 1 Tbsp sweet vinegar or mirin
1. Put the seaweed in a work bowl. Cover with three cups warm water (or more as needed) and allow it to reconstitute (about five minutes). It will bloom to two to three times its size. Strain and squeeze out any excess water.
2. In a glass or nonreactive bowl, toss the seaweed with all of the other remaining ingredients. Refrigerate for 15 minutes.
3. Serve cold, garnished with extra sesame seeds.
Seaweeds are neither plant nor animal — they’re algae.
Seaweed has been used as a supportive food in the Japanese diet for more than 2,000 years.
Early Polynesian societies used 60-70 species of seaweed for food, medicinal purposes, and ceremonies.
In ancient China, seaweed was served to special guests and kings.
The seaweed extract carrageenan is commonly used to thicken many commercial ice creams.
Where to Buy Seaweed:
Hawthorne Valley Farm
Kaaterskill Farm Natural Store
KJ’s Health Foods
Mother Earth’s Storehouse
Heaven On Earth Natural Foods
Mrs. Green’s Natural Market Store
Hungry Hollow Co-op