Wondrous Vegetables from the Sea: What They Are and How to Use Them

Clockwise from top: bars of agar agar, sliced kombu, kombu, hijiki, sheets of nori, wakame, in the center: dulse

Writing about intriguing foods which are under-appreciated in the U.S. seems to be one of my themes. Sea vegetables (marine algae) certainly fall into this category. Today, I begin an exploration of these edible marvels: what they are, where to find them, how to eat them.  I’m not a marine biologist, so I’ll only be able to scratch the surface of the thousands of varieties of sea vegetables which are cultivated or grow in nature.  I’ll concentrate on the eight to ten varieties most readily available to purchase (I’ve included links to people who sell sea vegetables online at the end of  this post).

So, why do I find sea vegetables so interesting?  Three reasons, mainly.  First, to me and to most of us, they provide new flavors, textures, colors and tastes. They expand the range of materials we cooks have to work with. Incorporating them into our cuisine breaks new culinary ground, and I find that exciting.  Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, is their nutritional profile. Like everything natural, they vary from variety to variety and harvest to harvest, but generally, they are remarkably high in minerals and trace elements, especially iron, calcium, iodine, magnesium and potassium, as well as vitamins A and K and folic acid, while being low in fat and cholesterol free. And thirdly, some of the best ones are gathered in our own back yard (I consider the Mendocino coast part of our back yard).

So let’s get started with a few of the common varieties…

Pear and Red Grape Kanten, gelled with agar agar (recipe after the jump)

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