Flash in the Pan 

The ultimate wintergreen

It turns out that seaweed is the answer to multiple problems that have been dogging me. One has been the question of which greens are the healthiest to eat during the winter. Another involves how to coerce my 3-year-old to eat any green material whatsoever.

Seaweed is technically an algae, not a plant, but it's plantlike on the cellular level. It delivers many of the health benefits we get from greens, including vitamins and fiber, plus other goodies like iodine and high protein. When dried, seaweed is much less resource-intensive than fresh veggies that must be shipped quickly and refrigerated. Seaweed farming has been called "climate smart" by the United Nation's Food and Agriculture Organization, and the practice not only sequesters carbon dioxide, but also requires no land clearing, fertilizer or any other additives. Nobody is displaced by seaweed farming.

Even better, my kid puts away sheets of seaweed like they're fruit leathers.

Seaweed delivers a level of satisfaction beyond what we expect from a typical leaf, in part because it brings with it the wild nature of the sea. The meaty essence is emboldened by the high protein content of seaweed; it's about 40-percent protein.

One of the many proteins found in seaweed is glutamate, which is a form of the infamous flavor enhancer monosodium glutamate (MSG). While often assumed to be some artificial chemical developed in a Chinese lab to fool our senses, MSG was first discovered in Japan as a component of kelp, a seaweed. This built-in MSG, aka umami, is one of the reasons why seaweed tastes so good.

Seaweed is also a rich source of carrageenan, which is used in vegetarian and vegan food products for its thickening qualities. When soy milk or rice milk-based ice cream taste too good to be true, you probably have carrageenan, in part, to thank for the flavor.

There are hundreds of seaweed species, each with its own purpose. There's kelp for soup and MSG; wakame, kombu or dulse for salad; hijiki for cooking; and Irish Moss for blancmange, a traditional vanilla pudding from the UK.

click to enlarge ARI LEVAUX
  • Ari LeVaux

Many of seaweed's freshwater relatives are toxic, so please don't apply anything I'm saying to freshwater algae. But most forms of marine algae are edible—provided they don't come from contaminated water. This isn't to say that all edible seaweeds are yummy. Some are too tough to chew, or too hairy or slimy for comfort. But whenever I'm on the coast, I'm always nibbling curiously at the local talent. And on camping trips to Maine and the Pacific Northwest I was able to include marine algae in my meals.

In Brazil, when we were footloose and fancy-free, my wife and I plucked seaweed from the beach swells. She washed the seaweed and prepared a salad with dried shrimp from the local market. Our Brazilian friends thought it was weird, as the local seaweed isn't commonly eaten there.

The seaweed salad most known and loved, from Brazil to Billings, is the bright green translucent wakame seaweed salad served at every sushi restaurant on earth. Though many dollars are charged for a small plate, it usually comes in large frozen tubs from Costco. It's an example of how yummy seaweed can be, but it contains colorants and preservatives that aren't great.

My 3-year-old doesn't like any food described as "salad," but he does like seaweed in his morning egg and bacon. There is solid precedent for combining seaweed with both pork and/or egg. My local Chinese restaurant makes a pork with seaweed dish that's sweetly dark and fatty, and many Korean dishes combine seaweed, egg and pork as well, not to mention a Japanese-style omelet sushi, wrapped in nori.

I prepare my kid's egg by crumbling half a sheet of seaweed and scattering the shards in oil on a hot pan, during the brief window between when the oil is hot and when I add the beaten egg. Be careful not to burn the seaweed, unless you like the taste of burnt hair. If it does burn, wash the pan and start over.

After the egg is sputtering in the pan, crush the other half-sheet of seaweed and sprinkle it on top, then proceed as if it were an omelet. Fold it in half, slide onto a plate, and serve. The kid inevitably requests that I throw some cheese in the fold, which I think is awful. There are a handful of other foods, along with cheese, that I find clash with seaweed, such as basil and kale. But the flavors that work, like soy sauce, rice and kimchi, work very well.

For a simple meal, I often combine these seaweed-friendly ingredients in a bowl, sometimes with egg or meat. The rice can be freshly made or leftover, and fried briefly in oil. The meat—chopped bacon or fried burger meat, for example—should be in small pieces, and placed in a little pile on the rice, along with a portion of kimchi, a dollop of mayo, a scrambled or fried egg, and whatever else seems appropriate. Drizzle with soy sauce, and crumble a sheet of seaweed on top. The shards will wave in the steam rising off the rice, like polyps of a coral reef. In the middle of winter, that looks, and tastes, quite nice.

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