The Many Sea-Vegetables of New Hampshire
What do you think of when you hear the word seaweed? My guess is your first thought isn’t popcorn; though maybe it should be. First, however, let’s start on a foraging journey that takes place where your mind may have initially travelled: the ocean.
Low tide at Drowned Forest Beach in Rye, New Hampshire has proven prosperous for Gabriela Bradt, a commercial fisheries specialist at the University of New Hampshire Cooperative Extension and N.H. Sea Grant. Today, Bradt is hosting her second seaweed foraging workshop of the year along with Evan Hennessey, chef and owner of Stages restaurant at One Washington in Dover. This event is part of a series called Seaweed Mania and is organized by UNH Cooperative Extension and N.H. Sea Grant to educate people about the many possibilities of seaweed as food and the ways in which seaweed is being used in aquaculture.
What is aquaculture, you ask? Also known as fish or shellfish farming, aquaculture is defined by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration as the breeding, rearing, and harvesting of plants and animals in all types of water environments including ponds, rivers, lakes, and the ocean. On the New Hampshire seacoast, seaweeds are currently being studied by University of New Hampshire (UNH) researchers as a stand-alone aquaculture crop, as well as functioning as a co-culturing component (being grown with kelp and trout) to an ecosystem friendly method to aquaculture referred to as Integrated Multi-Tropic Aquaculture (IMTA). IMTA has the potential to build resilience against environmental and economic change threatening the region’s coastal waters and is able to produce sustainable seafood for the community.
Seaweed’s reputation as a nutritional powerhouse recently hit New England’s food media headlines, claiming to be “the new kale” and the next best thing for health foodies. “What’s not really publicized,” says Bradt, “is that we’ve been harvesting and eating seaweeds for millenia.” In New England, she explains, there hasn’t been an industry as ancient as those in the eastern parts of the world, such as Asia. “But the northern New England coast is actually pretty perfect for natural seaweed growth,” she says.
In direct contrast to how we typically view land farming in New England conditions, the approximate 3,000 miles of rocky coastline, big tidal flows, and nutrient rich waters that hug the region’s eastern edge provide an ideal climate for seaweeds to attach themselves and flourish.
Although seaweeds look similar to a plant with leaf-like, stem-like, and root-like structures, they are not weeds or plants, but rather, very large algae. And, because they absorb everything around them including nutrients from the water, Bradt refers to them as an “ocean-based multivitamin.”
Before the water has reached our ankles, Hennessey is pulling bits of seaweed from between the rocks for a taste. “I’m the kid who puts everything in his mouth,” he says. Many of the seaweeds at Drowned Forest Beach in Rye can in fact be tasted straight from the water. To allow the algae to keep growing, foragers should always avoid cutting the seaweed too close to the bottom, where it’s attached to the substrate (or surface where it grows). This is because seaweeds grow from the top up, rather than from their root-like structure. Clipping the seaweeds should be “like giving it a haircut,” says Bradt, who also warns that seaweed found on the shore should not be eaten (for safety reasons) but makes for an excellent garden compost.
Once foragers have collected their algae for the day, it’s time to process it. This can be done differently for each type of seaweed, using methods such as pickling, drying, or keeping them in a resealable plastic storage bag in the fridge for up to a week (and rinsing them with fresh water before consumption).
Hennessey says Irish Moss has the most culinary value for its thickening agent used in foods such as ice cream (see recipe below). During another seaweed workshop a week prior, visitors collected in his kitchen at Stages at One Washington for a seaweed presentation and tasting. The spread featured seaweed as the shared ingredient (foraged for that morning) and included bowls of Gracilaria (spaghetti-like seaweed that tastes like mushrooms), long brown and deep purple ribbons of Dulse and Sugar Kelp, plates of bright green sea lettuce, seaweed jello made with citrus, chocolate seaweed ice cream, spicy granola with seaweed bits, cucumber salad, fried roll-ups with Nori (the seaweed species typically used for sushi), and—you guessed it—popcorn, sprinkled with seaweed flakes.
Seaweed is considered a superfood by many, acting as a detoxifier, anti-oxidant, anti-mutagenic, anti-coagulant, anti-cancer, anti-viral, anti-bacterial, and contains almost all the amino acids your body needs to survive. Some critics of the sea vegetables have deemed it unhealthy and even poisonous, but Bradt assures us that this is only likely if you’re consuming gigantic plates of straight seaweed on a daily basis. Like most else, in moderation, adding seaweed to your diet can be incredibly beneficial. We hope you’ll feel inspired to join us in spreading the good news to others, bringing us all closer to understanding our truly edible New Hampshire.
To learn about 2018’s seaweed workshop schedule, visit UNH’s website at extension.unh.edu/seaweed (season typically runs from late March to mid-April for cooking classes and foraging events). And stay tuned for Portsmouth Brewery’s second summer of Selkie! The amber seaweed beer will be brewed and distributed through Smuttlabs, Portsmouth Brewery’s sister company, and is expected to be available around August at the Portsmouth Brewery, Smuttynose’s Hayseed restaurant, and a few other establishments.