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Understanding seaweed

(article, Deborah Madison)

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“Where land and sea meet is home to algae, or seaweed, possibly the oldest form of life on our planet and arguably the most bounteous.” So writes Sally McKenna in her brand-new book, [%amazonProductLink asin=1906927197 "Extreme Greens"]. 

While many of us consider seaweed a kind of strange and edgy food, it has been part of the Irish diet going back to prehistoric times — not only for people directly, but also as nutrients for the soil. When I lived in Ireland, I watched farmer neighbors raking seaweed from the shore to put in their fields for the nourishment it provided. 

Between standing on an Oregon beach this August, being free of recipe testing, and having just received Sally McKenna’s book, suddenly seaweeds came into view. They’re my new vegetable.

[%image reference-image float=right width=400 caption="Seaweed salad."]

I’ve always liked them, actually. I have three cookbooks on the subject, in addition to McKenna’s book, which makes four. But I haven’t gotten very far with them. Hijiki and arame with carrots and ginger? A standby. Wakame and dulse in a miso soup, or kombu for a soup stock? For sure. Nori, toasted and wrapped around rice? Of course. 

But during my winter in Ireland, I bought bags of carrageen and other less familiar seaweeds, didn’t know what to do with them, and consequently did nothing. And today I live far from the ocean, which makes the very idea of collecting my own seaweed an exotic impossibility.

McKenna's subtitle is “Understanding Seaweeds,” and it’s a good one, because understanding is what can change our minds about these sensual ocean plants — not only knowing their names, what they look like, and what they’re best used for, but that they are seasonal and remarkably beneficial as well. (Handily, if you live on a coast, McKenna also teaches you how to forage for your own.) 

“Seaweed is a superfood,” McKenna writes, explaining that it regulates metabolism, cleanses the blood, stimulates the immune system, contains both pre- and pro-biotics, and protects against bacterial and viral infections, among other things. Seaweed, she notes, is 10 times higher in calcium than cow’s milk. It's a source of umami, and most importantly, it contains all the minerals and trace elements necessary for human health. 

All of which was enough to make me take down those boxes of seaweeds from the top shelf of the cupboard and start using them. I also indulged in a very expensive bag of mixed seaweeds to use in a salad. 

I love the mix of colors, forms, and the overall translucent quality of seaweeds in general, and those in this mix in particular. Plus, I’m utterly drawn to its subtle briny flavor and nearly crunchy texture. 

Drawing on a Sally McKenna recipe (I varied it for the amount in the seaweed package), I served my mixed-seaweed salad over sliced avocado. It’s my lunch these days: light and delicious, with a subtle and dramatic contrast of colors and sneaky bit of crunch. 

It keeps well refrigerated, so you can enjoy it over a period of days. You can also make with dulse, wakame, and arame, all of which are usually readily available and not as costly as the bag of mixed seaweeds.

Add other ingredients if you so desire, such as cold soba noodles, brown or black rice, or rice noodles. I also sometimes add small sliced cucumbers. 

Darina Allen, of the Ballymaloe Cookery School in Ireland, has called McKenna's book "a book that needed to be written," and I agree. Seaweed is a food with amazing potential, along with a great deal of goodness and utility.

Seaweed and Sesame Salad with Ginger Dressing

This salad is based on a recipe in Sally McKenna’s new book, [%amazonProductLink asin=1906927197 "Extreme Greens"]._ 

Between 10 and 21 grams (one ¾-ounce package) mixed seaweeds
1 rounded tsp. grated fresh ginger
1 Tbsp. rice-wine vinegar
1 Tbsp. toasted sesame oil
1 Tbsp. soy sauce
1 Tbsp. mirin or sugar
½ tsp. sea salt (or possibly less, if you used tamari for the soy sauce)
1 Tbsp. sesame seeds, lightly toasted
1 green onion, finely slivered
Ripe avocadoes (optional)

Put the seaweed in a bowl and cover with water. Leave for 5 to 10 minutes to rehydrate and soften. Dry in a salad spinner or squeeze it dry between your fingers.

Mix the ginger with the vinegar, sesame oil, soy sauce, mirin or sugar, and salt. Add the rehydrated seaweeds and toss with the sesame seeds and slivered green onion.

If you like, slice a firm avocado and arrange the pieces on individual plates. Heap the seaweed salad over the avocado and drizzle any extra dressing over all.

reference-image, l