Delicious, nutritious and sustainable,
seaweed is all around us
Story and Photos by John Cox
Ankle deep in an icy tide pool, I can’t help but feel like an awkward giant surrounded by an aquatic landscape straight from the pages of Dr. Seuss. The bay is a tranquil lake, and the glow of dawn cuts through the fog, making the blades of mazzaella dancing just below the ocean’s surface look like dark, flashing rainbows. The slippery rocks, normally submerged beneath the surf, are crusted with algae and sea life of every imaginable shape and color. Andrew Kim, my guide for the morning, holds up a leaf of purple Turkish towel seaweed on which another type of marine algae, a tiny pink tree-like plant, has hitched a ride. Next, he plucks a dime-sized orange starfish from a cluster of dry eelgrass and places it back safely into a tide pool. As I examine the face of a boulder, I see layer upon layer of marine organisms fused together like a living collage.
It’s just past 6am and according to the tide tables, the sea level has fallen to negative 1.3 feet, or more than a foot below average, meaning that many parts of the tidal zone that are normally submerged are now exposed. And that makes the area easy to explore with little more than a pair of rubber boots. We are at the Pacific Grove Marine Gardens State Marine Conservation area, one of the four state marine protected areas that surround the Monterey Peninsula.
Kim, who has a degree in marine biology and manages the Monterey Abalone Co., has agreed to wake up early and show me the natural environment of a few of the seaweed species we have been using in the kitchen at Sierra Mar, which include sea grapes, kelp and Turkish towel.
Foraging for sea vegetables here is strictly prohibited, but the conservation area is a wonderful place to explore and learn to identify the bounty of marine algae, as seaweed is technically known, and other sea life that proliferates in Monterey Bay. And outside of the marine protected areas anyone is allowed to collect up to 10 pounds of seaweed for their personal use. (See 10 Tips for Foraging Seaweed, p. 44.) There are literally thousands of varieties of seaweed, each with its own unique properties, and Monterey Bay is a habitat for some of the greatest seaweed diversity in the world.
As Kim and I continue to explore the tide pool, we discover a fascinating array of specimens. The skeletal remains of coralline alga look like some kind of alien bones scattered along the shore. Bright green tufts of cladophora resemble moss but have a sweet aquatic flavor and intriguing texture unlike anything I have tasted—thousands of tiny popping air bladders that almost feel gritty between your teeth before dissolving into the essence of the ocean. A large blade of dried mazzaella looks like a piece of pig skin, rust-brown and rubbery in texture. Feather boa kelp lives up to its name, lying across the beach in long festive strands.
Further up the shore, a large bed of seaweed blankets the beach. Referred to as “wracks,” beds of dried and decaying eelgrass, kelp and other assorted algae serve as an important habitat for birds and other animals. Digging through the pile of seaweed, we find a deposit of fresh sea grapes. This striking red seaweed looks like a cluster of Pinot noir grapes but is actually an alga with small seawater-filled bladders.
IDENTIFYING YOUR SEA VEGETABLES
Seaweed identification is a challenge, to say the least. Many species change dramatically as they grow, depending on their size, reproductive stage and location within the tidal zone. Turkish towel, for example, could be completely smooth and almost translucent or thick with hundreds of tiny spikes. The same variety of seaweed could be red on one part of the coast and brown on another. This makes positive seaweed identification a challenge for even the most experienced foragers. But luckily for would-be seaweed foragers, some species, like kelp and sea grapes, are both good to eat and easily identifiable.
And unlike foraging on land, where a toxic mushroom or plant can quickly kill you, the seaweed forager can rest assured that almost all seaweeds found in California are edible and few are toxic. In fact, the risk of being hurt by a rogue wave while collecting fresh sea vegetables is far greater than becoming sick from a toxic species, so the most important precaution to take when foraging for seaweed is to never expose your back to the ocean.
Still, one seaweed to watch out for is witch’s hair, or acid kelp, a variety that excretes sulfuric acid when damaged. The acid is strong enough to bleach surrounding seaweeds and mottle their appearance. While it is unlikely eating a small amount would make you sick, it is best to avoid any seaweed that looks dry or sickly.
Another that’s best not to harvest is hijiki, a staple in Japanese restaurants (and primarily found in Japan), which can sometimes contain high levels of arsenic. But “high” is a relative term; the seaweed contains only twice the arsenic content of California-grown rice. Also, three species, eelgrass, surfgrass and sea palm, are prohibited from being harvested, but both are fairly easy to identify.
Eelgrass and surfgrass look like long blades of thick grass and grow in dense patches. Just like land-based grass, sea grasses are not digestible and not recommended for consumption. They are off limits because they provide important marine habitat.
Sea palm, on the other hand, is said to be one of the most desirable of edible seaweeds, but it is only allowed to be harvested with a commercial license and in small quantities. It also grows in the outer tidal areas, typically in high surf, so as a species, it’s best left to professional harvesters.
Sea vegetable garden: opposite, clockwise from upper left, Andrew Kim of Monterey
Abalone and Julia Felder, a cook at Sierra Mar, examine giant kelp,sea grapes, an
epiphytic red alga growing on a blade of Turkish towel and a branch of acid kelp.
A NEW SUPERFOOD?
Most Americans think their seaweed intake is very limited—a few sheets of nori wrapped around sushi rolls here and some strips of seaweed floating in bowls of miso soup there.
But many of the products we use on a daily basis are made with seaweed. Thickeners and stabilizers extracted from brown algae, including agar, carrageenan and alginate, are used in everything from cosmetics to toothpaste and paper; they are particularly common in large-scale commercial food preparation.
Similar in concept to ingredients like pectin (a fruit-based thickener) and gelatin (an animal-based thickener), these seaweed derivatives offer a natural and vegan solution to a number of cooking applications.
The Chinese learned to extract agar from seaweed in the 1600s, and recently, with the increase in mass-produced food, the use of these thickeners and stabilizers has skyrocketed.
Several food safety groups have recently red flagged carrageenan as an ingredient that has caused inflammation, tumors and other intestinal issues in laboratory animals.
At least a few companies are taking note of customer concerns and looking for alternatives. Horizon Foods has committed to eliminating the use of carrageenan in its product line by the end of the year.
But it’s important to note that the negative effects were produced when animals were fed an incredibly high dosage of the product, far exceeding any likely dietary intake. Thus far, there have not been enough definitive studies done to change FDA regulations—carrageenan was approved for use in organic products in 1995 and re-approved in 2012. In fact, seaweed offers great nutritional benefits and is even considered by some to be a superfood.
Seaweed is one of the few foods that is high in iodine, which helps promote a healthy thyroid. It also offers eight times more potassium than milk, an abundance of beneficial trace minerals and strong antioxidant and detoxifying properties.
Some seaweed can be tasty picked freshly off the rocks. As a whole, though, they tend to be quite salty, and most benefit from some kind of preparation. Freshly harvested seaweed is also highly perishable, so drying or pickling serves both to make them more palatable and preserve them.
Kelp is an amazingly versatile ingredient. High in glutamic acid (a flavor-enhancing amino acid that also tenderizes food), mannitol (a sugar) and sea salt, it is a perfect medium for curing or marinating fish and meats. It is also one of the most sustainable and fastest growing organisms on earth, growing several feet per day.
For hundreds of years, Japanese cooks have packed raw fish with sheets of kombu, or dried kelp, to preserve it and enhance both its flavor and texture. You can do the same with blades of kelp found in Monterey Bay.
First, take fresh pieces of kelp and dry them in the sun or in an oven at the lowest setting, 150–200° F, with a medium convection fan, if available. When a white powder forms on the surface, the kelp is dried. At this point, put the kelp away for use at a later time or use it right away to marinate seafood (or even vegetables and meat).
If you want a sashimi-style preparation, simply slice the fish into your desired width and then press it gently between two sheets of dried kelp. Place the fish and kelp in the refrigerator and let it cure for between 2 and 6 hours. When ready to enjoy, simply remove the fish and discard the kelp. The exact time will depend on how strong you want the marinade and what type of fish you are using.
You may also use the same technique on whole filets of fish, with the kelp helping to preserve them and enhance their flavor. For example, if you are lucky enough to get a whole Monterey salmon, you could enjoy the salmon raw the first night, cured with kelp sashimi style the second night and then cooked in a wrap of kelp the next two nights. Just like the green vegetables you find in any cookbook, sea vegetables can be enhanced by blanching them in boiling water and then shocking them with ice. Unlike vegetables grown on land that require highly salted water for cooking, seaweed can be cooked in plain water.
A few seconds in boiling water will reduce the saltiness of the seaweed and turn many species, including dull brown varieties, a bright chartreuse green. Also, just like their land-based red and purple counterparts, like deep purple spears of asparagus and heirloom artichokes, red and purple pigmented seaweeds tend to lose their color when cooked, and often turn green.
One of my favorite ways to prepare sea vegetables is to make them into chips. This is safely achieved by simply drying thin varieties in a low-heat oven or dehydrator. The resulting chip is translucent and brittle but serves as a healthy snack or refined garnish.
For a natural thickener, boil pieces of Turkish towel in water for a few minutes and then strain the liquid. This liquid can be saved and will thicken as it cools to room temperature. A small spoonful may be used for finishing sauces, adding viscosity and smoothness.
Sea vegetable pickles make a great snack on their own or a wonderful addition to salads and other dishes, and most of the sea vegetables that grow in our area benefit greatly from a simple pickling. (The only species to avoid pickling are those like sea lettuce that are too thin and fragile to hold up in the brine.)
To pickle seaweed, I use a base of 4 cups unseasoned rice vinegar, 2 cups water and 1 cup sugar, brought to a boil and then cooled before pouring over raw or blanched sea vegetables. Any number of spices or aromatics, such as garlic, ginger, jalapeños or citrus rinds, may be added.
Once pickled and refrigerated, the sea vegetables will last up to a month—and even longer if properly canned.
Despite the fact that humans have relied on seaweed as an important source of food and industry for thousands of years, we still know relatively little about them.
As we look at ways to better understand our environment and natural resources, people around the world are creating new uses for different seaweeds.
Last year, scientists began using seaweed-derived gels for printing three-dimensional medical implants. Scientists in Norway have been working to convert sugar kelp into a promising biofuel. In Russia, doctors have made a seaweed-based vaccine that has proven effective in fighting a tick-borne virus. Tasmanian researchers are testing a seaweedbased drug for treating colitis. Danish designers have started making lamps and chairs from seaweed pulp. With all of this innovation focused on seaweed, it is surprising that chefs have not explored this exciting ingredient more.
Even if you never plan to forage and prepare your own seaweed, I hope that you will at least walk out to the tidal pools during a negative tide and spend a few minutes marveling at the bounty of sea life surrounding you. If you sit quietly and simply focus on a small piece of rock, you will be amazed at what you find.
John Cox is executive chef at Post Ranch Inn’s Sierra Mar. He is a frequent contributor to Edible Monterey Bay and several other Edible titles.
TEN TIPS FOR FORAGING SEAWEED
- Plan your trip around a low tide. The lower the tide, the more exciting the things you will be able to discover. A forecast of local tides can be found at: www.tidesandcurrents.noaa.gov.
- DO NOT FORAGE IN INCLEMENT WEATHER OR WHEN WAVES ARE PRESENT. Coastal foraging can be incredibly dangerous. If you are questioning the conditions, don’t go.
- Wear a good pair of rubber wading boots. They will help keep your feet dry and provide some traction on the slippery rocks.
- Pick up a local foraging book like Seaweeds of the Pacific Coast by Jennifer and Jeff Mondragon.
- If you are more tech savvy, download the California Tidepools app.
- Know the legal places to harvest. A map of California’s Marine Protected Areas can be found here: www.dfg.ca.gov/marine/mpa/mpa_summary.asp. For unprotected areas that are good for seaweed foraging, Monterey Abalone’s Kim suggests Point Joe southward to Pescadero Point, Malpaso Creek to the Point Sur Lighthouse or Soberanes Point, all at low tide.
- California state regulations limit seaweed harvesting for personal use to 10 lbs. per day. To collect seaweed for commercial use, a Kelp Harvesting License must be purchased from the Department of Fish and Wildlife.
- Be familiar with the prohibited species: eelgrass, surfgrass and sea palm.
- Do not bother any of the marine species that you find. The tidal zone is a sensitive area and home to some endangered species, like the black abalone.
- The best and safest way to get fresh local seaweed is to buy it from the Monterey Abalone Co., which sells it for $5 per half liter (about two cups), plus a $5 per-order collecting fee, from its location on Wharf #2 in Monterey. At press time, Real Good Fish had also just started offering locally farmed seaweed to its CFS members.
The former executive chef at Post Ranch Inn’s Sierra Mar, John Cox is now pursuing a number of projects, including serving as a partner and consulting chef at Cultura–comida y bebida in Carmel and chef-partner at The Bear and Star at the Fess Parker Ranch in Los Olivos. For more, go to www.chefjohncox.com or follow him on Instagram and Facebook.