Seaweed is regarded by many as the future of food. It's one of the world's most sustainable and nutritious foods. Seaweed is zero-input, meaning that it does not require fresh water, fertilizer, feed or arable land to thrive. Seaweed has the ability to absorb excess nitrogen and phosphorus deposited in the water by agricultural runoff and waste water, and dissolved carbon dioxide from combusted fossil fuels. Too much nitrogen and phosphorus can cause algal blooms, which leave deoxygenated dead zones where little can survive. More than a quarter of the world's carbon dioxide emissions end up in the ocean. Excess carbon causes rising temperatures and contributes to ocean acidification, which harms the shell-forming creatures on which many of the fish we eat depend. It is estimated that coastal habitats absorb five times more carbon than terrestrial forests.
The ocean covers 70 percent of the earth and produces less than 2 percent of our food. To grow the rest, we use almost 40 percent of the world's land and nearly three-quarters of our fresh water. Industrial land-based agriculture is becoming increasingly untenable – both environmentally destructive and vulnerable to drought and changing weather.
Seaweed could well be the world's best regenerative crop. It proliferates at a phenomenal rate, growing as much as an inch a day. One study estimated that a "marine garden" the size of Washington state could provide enough protein to feed the earth's population, all the while cleaning pollutants. Harvesting seaweed is actually good for the environment. If seaweed just stays in the ocean, it disintegrates in the summer sun, releasing the carbon and nitrogen it has absorbed to dissolve back into the water.
Indigenous peoples have used seaweed for thousands of years. Kelp was a traditional food for tribes all along the Pacific west coast. It was also used as insulation, medicine and fertilizer. When the European invaders colonized the region, native diets underwent "forced assimilation," and beef and wheat replaced what naturally grew there.
In addition to its sustainability, seaweed is highly nutritious, containing more calcium than milk, more vitamin C than orange juice, and more protein than soybeans. Seaweed is rich in vitamin B12, trace minerals, iodine and omega-3 fatty acids. Most plant-based diets are deficient in omega-3 fatty acids and require supplements. Fish, a common source, do not naturally produce omega-3 fatty acids; they obtain these nutrients by eating seaweed.
In addition to its sustainability and nutritional benefits, seaweed can be quite delicious. Though widely used in Asian cuisine, Western cultures largely eschew seaweed as food. In America, we are familiar with nori, the wrapping around sushi, and kombu, a component of dashi broth. Kombu is the Japanese word for dried sea kelp. Other types that are commonly available in supermarkets and health food stores, in a dehydrated form, are dulse and green wakame. Though the flavor and texture of seaweed may seem strange at first to American palates, just as we learned to love kale, we just need to be taught how to use the stuff. Kale can be bitter, tough and leathery, but we learned to love it because Gwyneth Paltrow popularized it and prominent chefs gave us recipes. Seaweed is being called the new kale; we just need to be shown how to make it taste good.
Here are some tricks I learned from working in restaurants: If you are cooking a pot of dry beans and forgot to soak them overnight, add a piece of kombu. It will make them as tender as an overnight soak and enhance digestibility. To a pound of pinto beans in 4 quarts of water, add a teaspoon of salt and a 3x5-inch piece of kombu. To firm up the flesh of raw fish and increase the umami, sandwich the fish filets between 2 pieces of rehydrated kombu and refrigerate for an hour or two.
Dried dulse and wakame simply need a quick soaking in warm water to make them ready for use. Once soaked and drained, they can be used in soups or tossed with a simple dressing of sesame oil, rice vinegar and soy sauce.
The ingredients for the following recipes can be purchased in Springfield at Food Fantasies and the Asian Market, both on Wabash Avenue.
Easy miso soup
Dashi is a broth made from dried kombu and bonito flakes (smoked, fermented and dried slipjack tuna) that is essential to many Japanese dishes. Though best made from scratch, instant dashi (available in powdered form) is an acceptable substitute. Hondashi is a popular brand.
1 tablespoon dried wakame
4 cups dashi
4 tablespoons light miso
½ package soft tofu, drained and cut into ½-inch cubes
¼ cup thinly sliced scallions
In a small bowl, cover wakame with an inch of warm water and soak for 8 to 10 minutes. Drain in a sieve.
To make dashi, bring water to a boil, add instant dashi, and reduce heat to low. In a bowl, combine the miso with a little of the broth and stir with a fork until free of lumps. Stir the mixture into the warm broth, return to a simmer, being careful not to boil.
Add the tofu and wakame and let them cook in the broth until just warmed through, about 1 to 2 minutes.
Ladle into small soup bowls and top with the scallions.
If you've been ordering seaweed salad at sushi restaurants or buying takeout at the grocery store because you think it's healthy, I have bad news. The neon green color is not the natural color of seaweed; it's food coloring. Places that sell seaweed salad usually buy it preseasoned in tubs, which means it's probably loaded with high-fructose corn syrup, thickeners, preservatives and MSG. And it's just so better to make your own.
1 ounce of dried seaweed – wakame or a combination of wakame and dulse
1 tablespoon soy sauce
1 tablespoon rice vinegar
1 tablespoon mirin
2 teaspoons toasted or dark sesame oil
Salt to taste
Pepper flakes to taste (optional)
2 teaspoons toasted sesame seeds
To rehydrate seaweed: Place seaweed in a large bowl filled with warm water. Soak for 8-10 minutes. Drain in a colander and squeeze to remove excess water.
To make the dressing, whisk together the soy sauce, rice vinegar, mirin and sesame oil in a small bowl.
In a serving bowl, spoon the dressing over the seaweed and toss gently. Taste and add a small amount of salt if necessary.
Top with the scallions and sprinkle with sesame seeds and serve cold or at room temperature. The salad can be kept in the refrigerator for up to four days.
Peter Glatz lives with his wife and dog in a converted school bus, and is spending the winter working remotely, with an abundance of caution, on the coast of Florida.