Some seaweeds taste like blood.
I don’t mean to dissuade you from eating them raw, but it’s true. Sea vegetables are touted for their high mineral content, iodine perhaps being the one most people think of, and like in blood, these minerals impart a metallic flavor. In fact, I’ve read things to suggest that sea vegetables and blood have a strikingly similar mineral profile (score one for the evolutionists who believe we spent some time with the dolphins before turning bipedal and ape-like).
Luckily for the squeamish among us, sea vegetables exist, and we don’t have to eat blood sausage or blood soup to get our iodine, potassium, B-vitamins, iron, calcium, and magnesium. Even luckier for those of us who live near the coast, sea vegetables are plentiful, easily identified, and can be harvested sustainably (meaning that proper harvesting doesn’t harm the plant). A beginning forager’s dream.
A and I recently spent a morning clambering about the Oregon coast with John Kallas of Wild Food Adventures, tasting seaweeds fresh from the ground, climbing gingerly on barnacle-encrusted rocks, sloshing through cold ocean channels as the tide rose around us. Part of putting my roots down in Oregon has meant concentrated attempts to understand the intricate ecosystems that make up this diverse state, and though I’ve spent time by glacial mountain streams and in old-growth forests, the coast has remained strange and unfamiliar, full of plants I don’t know and changeful forces that move at a different pace from a Douglas fir.
When you learn about plants—how to identify them, what sort of conditions they like, what they’re useful for—every walk through a natural area is like visiting friends. And whether you believe in the spirituality of plants or not, they are all trying to tell you something. A cluster of young aspens tells you that the ground has recently moved, or been burned. A rocky outcrop covered in sea vegetables tells you that the tide is too turbulent for sand to settle in, since sea vegetables themselves need to attach firmly to rock in order to survive the churning of the ocean.
Sea vegetables attach to their rocks, or substrate, by a root-like tangle aptly called the holdfast. So long as the holdfast is not disturbed, sea vegetables can continue growing blades, or laminae, making for quick and easy foraging (though like with all foraging, if you cannot see an abundance of a particular species in the immediate area, it is best to leave that one alone). Once harvested, sea vegetables do need to be processed within a few days, or else they have a tendency to turninto a rather off-putting mucilaginous mass.
Under John’s instruction we learned about 10 or so different seaweeds common to the Oregon coast, of which A and I harvested 6 kinds: oarweed (Laminaria sinclairii), angel wing kelp (Alaria marginata), sea cabbage (Hedophyllum sessil), fucus or rockweed (Fucus gardnerii), “stir-fry seaweed” (Ahnfeltiopsis linearis), and the flotation bladders of feather boa (Egregia menziesii).
Oarweed is in the same family as the Japanese seaweed known as kombu, and can be used in the same way, so we dehydrated our oarweed for future use in miso soup stock. Sea cabbage laminae are large and flat like lettuce leaves, suggesting to me they might be best used raw in sandwiches or lightly cooked in soups; we blanched and froze these, some of the lamina turning a startling emerald color in the hot water.
Ahnfeltiopsis linearis lacking a common name, John has christened it “stir-fry seaweed” in honor of its prime usage. Its laminae are thicker and stiff, and stand up well to cooking. We threw some into a zucchini stir-fry with a garlic Hoisin sauce and were pleased with the mild flavor, though A disliked the brittle mouthfeel the seaweed retained even after cooking.
I found the flavor of the feather boa lamina to be too metallic for my taste, but the flotation bladders, or sea olives, are milder and have a pleasant crunch. I tried marinating them in a dressing that I sometimes use with mushrooms, but the results after a few days tasted off. I’m not sure if it was the vinegar or the spicing that didn’t pair well, but whichever the culprit the result was inedible. I sadly procrastinated too long with the angel wing kelp, so now it graces my potted tomato plant as a fertilizer.
More successfully, the rockweed became seaweed chips. This is a small, branching seaweed, with flat lamina about the width of an adult finger (see the photo at the beginning of this post). The texture is somewhat in between the delicate lacy angel wing kelp and the tough brittleness of oarweed. The chips themselves were as snackable as anything out of a bag, with an underlying sharp hint of mineral flavor to remind us where they came from.
As always, do not forage if you cannot positively identify a plant! Seaweeds are easy to identify once you know them but there are poisonous species, including one that releases sulfuric acid when damaged.
If you don’t have access to fresh seaweed, this recipe would also work well with kale or any other vegetable that you like to dehydrate. Drying times will vary.
8 oz flat seaweed, such as rockweed/fucus
1/3 C coconut oil, melted
2 T tamari or soy sauce
1 T paprika
1 T dried oregano
1 T garlic powder
1 t dried thyme
1 t mushroom powder
Rinse seaweed well under cool running water and dry in a salad spinner or with a paper towel. Rip into chip-size pieces if necessary. Combine in a bowl with seasonings and mix well. In a commercial dehydrator, dry at 135° for 9 hours; or in an oven on the lowest temperature setting.