Eats: Dishing up ‘the new kale’

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Everybody’s talking about it — the “other seafood,” the “new kale.”

Seaweed, known as “sea greens” or “seagreens” in culinary circles, is showing up on more menus as it is integrated into dishes other than the typical sushi, miso soup and salads enjoyed in Japanese restaurants in the U.S.

Sea greens tingle your taste buds and do your body good whether they’re layered in lasagna, blended into pesto or a smoothie, or even baked into a loaf of bread or a sweet dessert. With their powerful punch of nutrition and aromatic flavor, sea greens lend a subtle taste of the ocean to any dish.

The flavor they impart is referred to as “umami, the fifth taste,” different than bitter, sweet, salty and sour, and often described as mild, pleasantly nutty and meaty. Keep in mind that sea greens can be used in place of, or combined with, any green leafy vegetable. These gifts from the sea are the most nutrient-dense foods on Earth; a super food that green up our bodies with over 25 vitamins and over 50 minerals. The glossy fronds are gluten-free, fat-free and paleo-, vegetarian- and vegan-friendly.

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They can be purchased fresh and frozen in Asia and other select markets, and also come dried as sheets or flakes. The dried products can readily be found at the health food store or grocery store, and can be steeped in warm water to allow them to re-hydrate.

A great place to discover how sea greens can be incorporated into a meal is to visit one of many upscale restaurants where they are in a starring role. Scales, Fore Street and Vinland in Portland all serve dishes regularly that contain sea greens. They are also a featured component on the menu at Tao Yuan in Brunswick.

Former chef Barton Seaver of Freeport is the author of “Superfood Seagreens: A Guide to Cooking with Power-Packed Seaweed.”

Seaver is also a National Geographic Society fellow and director of the Healthy and Sustainable Food Program at the Center for Health and the Global Environment at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

He said he first began to “mess around” with seaweed back in 2007 while serving as chef at Hook, one of his top restaurants in Washington, D.C. He explained that his “first shallow dive” into the world of sea greens wasn’t an intimidating exploration of new culinary territory, but rather an introduction to a “charismatic, healthful option to use in favorite recipes.”

Added to familiar dishes like sauteed greens, soups, smoothies and lasagna, sea greens take on a supporting role that accentuates flavors. “They fit into many ethnic cuisines and have flavors that are universally flattering. When eaten on their own, sea greens’ flavors are bold and provocative,” said Seaver.

Chef David Levi at Vinland, where 100 percent local food is served, added, “Seaweed is delicious, I promise. There’s no need to be afraid just because it’s unfamiliar. It doesn’t have to be slimy. It’s not one food; it’s a whole category of foods, diverse in flavor, texture and uses.”

For example, kombu seaweed is the base for all Japanese stocks for its exceptional concentration of umami. Wakame seaweed brings umami and its lighter vegetable flavor to miso soup. Nutty and rich nori seaweed is formed into maki sheets for sushi rolls and is the seaweed Americans are, by far, most familiar with.

Levi added, “Here at Vinland, we think we should all be eating a whole lot more seaweed, so we’re constantly trying to find new and exciting ways to showcase its qualities and potential. We use seaweed fresh and dried, roasted and fried, eaten whole, blended in, or infused in stock. It is an exceptionally versatile category of ingredient and is, without a doubt, one of our secret weapons. We want to help get the secret out.”

Karen Schneider is the editor of Northern Journeys, a publication that supports the arts, and has been a contributor to the Sun Journal since 1996. When she isn’t writing or editing, she’s enjoying her seven grandchildren or playing the ukulele. She can be contacted at iwrite33@comcast.net.

RECIPES

The first three recipes are courtesy of Barton Seaver from “Superfood Seagreens.” The fourth is a dessert from Vinland’s menu.

Sauteed sea greens with bacon, apple and onion

Serves 4

Ingredients:

4 strips bacon

2 small onions cut into wedges

1 apple, such as Pink Lady, cut into thin wedges

1 pound fresh or frozen sugar kelp, blanched and cut into bite-size pieces

Salt

In a large saute pan, brown the bacon and onion together. When the bacon is crisp, pour off most of the fat. Add the apple, toss to combine, and cook 2 to 3 minutes. Add the sea greens and mix well. Cook until warmed through. Check the seasoning and add salt, if needed.

Kelp, walnut and ginger pesto

Makes 1 1/2 cups

Ingredients:

1 cup fresh or frozen kelp, or 1/2 ounce dried kelp, re-hydrated; water reserved — chopped

1 1/2 teaspoons minced fresh ginger

1 small garlic clove

1/2 cup reserved water, plus more as needed for texture

1/2 cup walnuts

1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil

Salt

Add the kelp, ginger, garlic and 1/2 cup water (from soaking kelp) to a blender. Puree, adding a little more water as needed. Add walnuts and olive oil. Puree until smooth. Season with salt.

Serve with pasta.

Aromatic dashi broth

Makes 1 gallon

Ingredients:

1 cup white wine

2 star anise pods

2 strips lemon peel

2 slices fresh ginger

1 gallon water

2 ounces dried kelp or nori, dry toasted

1/4 cup bonito flakes

Dash mace, dried or fresh chiles, onion, fennel, or fennel seeds (optional)

In a 6-quart pot, boil wine, anise, lemon peel and ginger until the wine cooks off. Add water and shredded sea greens and reduce heat to a gentle simmer. After 20 minutes, remove the greens with a slotted spoon and reserve them for another use. Add bonito flakes. As soon as the broth returns to a gentle simmer, remove pan from heat and strain broth. Do not boil. Can be used as a stock or finished with lemon and herbs to serve as a consomme.

Can be refrigerated up to four days or frozen up to one month.

Vinland’s seaweed panna cotta

Serves 4-6

Ingredients:

4 1/4 cups heavy cream

2 tablespoons dried sugar kelp (also known as kombu)

1 1/4 teaspoon dried Irish moss (reconstituted in cold water)

1/4 cup maple sugar

1 cup wild blueberries

Bake the kombu in the oven at 300 degrees until it has a pleasant roasted aroma. This should take only a few minutes. In a saucepan, combine heavy cream and maple sugar and heat to 200 degrees. Remove from heat and add the kombu and Irish moss (with the water pressed out of it).

Allow to cool for 20 minutes. Strain, pour into ramekins and chill until set. Serve each ramekin topped with blueberries.

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