Making long, slippery ribbons of sugar kelp — a type of brown seaweed that grows wherever land and cold oceanic waters meet — taste delicious may sound like an uphill battle, but you’d never have guessed it from the buzz in the back room at Noah’s in Greenport last Friday evening.
There, 42 open-minded diners were primed to enjoy the first kelp harvest of Cornell Cooperative Extension Marine Program’s pilot Peconic Estuary Seaweed Aquaculture feasibility study, funded in part by Suffolk County and managed by Stephen Schott, marine botany/habitat restoration educator for CCE.
The crowd included local artists who contributed to the “Sea Something, Save Something” rotating art show; an accredited sustainability professional who is building her dream green house on the South Fork; a representative from the Brooklyn-based company Beyond the Shoreline, which is rolling out a kelp-and-mushroom jerky; an NIH researcher and an Army officer, who travel from Washington, D.C., to tend their oyster garden in Peconic; and an East Marion couple in the wine business who are interested in pushing the boundaries of their fish-and-vegetables way of eating (“When you limit yourself, it opens up a whole new world of other foods”).
But perhaps no one was more excited to be there than the restaurant’s chef-owner, Noah Schwartz, as he introduced the first course: kelp-wrapped seared yellowfin tuna. “This is a first for me, working with local kelp,” he said. “It’s an adventure.”
And he was eager to share what he learned.
The kelp used for the dish was a couple of days old, he explained, and that was deliberate. He discovered that, after soaking, it was more pliable than the just-harvested stuff for wrapping the tuna before searing. Unlike many land vegetables, which often lose their vivid color when cooked, heat brings out kelp’s chlorophyll, turning the drab seaweed a bright green — a striking frame for the rosy tuna.
Sushi rolls incorporating blanched fresh kelp soon followed, then a kelp-noodle salad. The main ingredient, produced from the gelatinous extract left after steaming kelp, had the springy, addictively chewy texture of cellophane (bean thread) noodles.
They weren’t made in-house, Schwartz said, but are available at health food stores. (You can also find them in some supermarkets and big-box stores as well as online.) The tangle of noodles, tender farm stand vegetables and miso dressing was easy to love. It’s also easy to recreate at home and makes one fabulous hot-weather meal.
In a demonstration of kelp’s versatility, next up were sea scallops, dusted with finely ground roasted dried kelp and tucked next to risotto and pea greens dressed with kelp-infused olive oil. Perhaps it was the generous pours of Borghese Vineyard wines, or the novelty of the menu, but by this time, the event felt more like a dinner party than a gathering of strangers, complete with table hopping, exchanges of business cards and spontaneous cocktail invitations.
Eating seaweeds like kelp may be relatively new to Americans, but coastal peoples around the world have cultivated and thrived on them for millennia. Today, they’re popular in Japan and other parts of Asia, Britain and places that don’t have many indigenous vegetables — Iceland, for example.
Roasted nori sheets and other seaweed snacks have become the gateway for many health-conscious American consumers. Increasingly, high-end restaurants in the United States are incorporating what Asians have long called “sea vegetables” into cocktails, salads, side dishes, main courses and, yes, even desserts. Schwartz’s flourless chocolate cake, made in part with powdered kelp, triggered the evening’s biggest round of applause.
Generally speaking, kelp, like other seaweeds, is packed with vitamins, minerals and amino acids, which give it an umami-rich briny savor and aroma. It’s also one of the most sustainable, most prolific crops on the planet.
And the seaweed industry is growing almost as fast as actual seaweed. Kelp and kelp-derived products, for instance, have not just culinary applications, but pharmaceutical, cosmetic and agricultural ones as well. According to the 2016 Global Commercial Seaweeds Industry Report, the commercial market is projected to hit $22 billion by 2024.
“We’re pretty much the only ones who don’t take advantage of this resource,” Schott said.
“This is just the beginning as far as researching seaweed aquaculture and developing a viable industry on Long Island,” he added in a follow-up email. “Our next step is to try to ‘spawn’ kelp in the fall and produce kelp seed strings that can be deployed at promising sites in the Peconic Estuary.”
The end goal? According to Schott, that would be a regulated, sustainable seaweed aquaculture industry on Long Island that will also benefit the ecosystem, including removal of excess carbon and nitrogen from our local waters. In the meantime, pass the kelp noodles.