Now the real work could begin.
I wanted to start working with the fresh seaweed from Walrus and Carpenter, but I knew that fresh sugar kelp wasn’t going to be easy to procure for the everyday home cook, so I also started looking into dried varieties of all kinds. Why are there so many dried kinds? It comes down to the simple fact that many types of seaweed are too tough or don’t taste great when fresh. “A few species can be eaten raw if they are completely fresh and collected from areas of clean water,” writes Mouritsen. “Most, however, need to be processed in some way, usually by drying, cooking, or toasting, in order to make them palatable. This often results in a noticeably improved ﬂavor,” he continues.
I ordered a bevy: wakame, hijiki, kombu, ogo, dulse, and, of course, nori.
Interestingly, as foreign as eating seaweed may seem to many Americans, we do eat it (or some derivation of it) more frequently than you’d think. This is because some common gelling agents come from seaweeds: alginate, carrageenan, and agar. These long and unique polysaccharides bind water, turning liquids into more viscous and stable gels. They have been used for centuries in Asia and elsewhere, and today are frequently used in food products.
I decided to start work on two very different types of recipes—a sweet preparation and a savory one. My goals? I wanted to highlight the versatility of seaweed. And I wanted to create recipes that were surprising. No boring seaweed salad here. There was so much further I could go, flavor-wise, without making the recipes difficult or esoteric. I would start with familiar foods that people already loved and add the depth of flavor, beautiful color, and (of course) nutritional aspects of seaweed.
And what’s more beloved than pasta and ice cream?
For my pasta recipes, I started out trying to roll pieces of the fresh sugar kelp right into fresh egg dough, which is something I’ve done before with fresh herbs like parsley or chervil. It worked, but the kelp was too subtle in flavor to impart enough oomph to the pasta dough. So I started thinking about using ground dried seaweed. Dried nori (used for sushi rolls) packs a lot of toasty seaweed flavor and is a great entry point for people who haven’t worked a lot with seaweed. It’s easy to toast and grind into a fine powder. The powder itself is super versatile and can be used in a number of ways. We’ve used it before as a seasoning for chips, and here we added it to bread flour for an egg-based fresh pasta dough. The resulting pasta dough is a deep green color, and when rolled out and cut into pappardelle, it actually resembles pieces of fresh seaweed. (I also added the nori powder to butter to make a compound butter great for spreading on bread or basting on cooked fish and meat.)
In the end, I developed two different recipes to pair with the pasta. I started by trying to create a riff on spaghetti alle vongole (spaghetti with clams in a white wine, chile flake, and garlic sauce). But one taste of the first attempt and I knew: the garlic and chile were too aggressive. They completely overwhelmed the seaweed flavor in the pasta. Given that the point of the recipe is to highlight seaweed’s flavor, I needed to pair the pasta with something more delicate. What about . . . mussels? I steamed them with white wine, shallots, and garlic, took them out of the pan, and removed them from their shells. I used the liquid left in the pan to make a briny, delicate butter pan sauce. Tossed with the seaweed pasta and fresh tarragon, it made for a simple and delicious dish.
For the second pasta, I wanted to focus more on the glutamate properties of seaweed—the deep umami flavor in seaweed also pops up in ingredients like tomatoes and cheese, which thus seemed like natural pairings. (Umami was, in fact, first discovered in seaweed.) I blistered cherry tomatoes in a hot skillet, then marinated them quickly with extra-virgin olive oil and smoked paprika before tossing in the cooked pasta and finishing with sherry vinegar, a little fish sauce, chives, and some Pecorino Romano. The ultimate glutamate bomb of a dish—and a beautiful one, to boot.
On to ice cream.
While working as sous chef at Parachute in Chicago, I had made a kelp ice cream. While it sounds a little odd, seaweed brings a subtle savory note to dessert when steeped in a neutral sweet cream ice cream base, producing an interesting, hard-to-pinpoint flavor (think: green tea ice cream).
I started with the ice cream base that Dan developed after attending the Penn State Ice Cream Short Course and tested it with a number of different seaweeds—kombu, hijiki, wakame, and the fresh young sugar kelp. And I’ve got to say, the ice cream with the sugar kelp was amazing. It brought a nice subtle brine to the ice cream without an overpowering seaweed flavor. I’m not sure I would have wanted to eat the ice cream while out on the boat in the snow, but it was good nonetheless.
Because not everyone can go seaweed farming before making their winter batch of ice cream, however, I knew I needed to create a replicable flavor with a dried seaweed. Wakame was too intensely vegetal on its own. Kombu brought smooth, deep umami that we liked, and hijiki made a brighter and sweeter ice cream. In the end, a combination of kombu and hijiki gave us an ice cream that was not in your face with seaweed flavor. If you didn’t know it was a seaweed ice cream, it would be hard to pin down what, exactly, you were tasting. (It’s how I like to use smoke in food, too—as soon as you can really taste the smoke and it becomes an exercise in eating campfire, then you’ve gone too far.)
I am drawn to that elusive quality of seaweed. Like wine, seaweed is very difficult to describe with tasting notes without falling into the trap of vague buzzwords. This added to the recipe-development challenge of finding a way to highlight an ingredient that usually does its work behind the scenes. Seaweed brings a lot to the table while defying categorization.
Field Photography by Kevin White.
Styled Food Photography by Steve Klise.
Food Styling by Marie Piraino.
Art Direction by Lindsey Chandler.