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Just Add Water: The Miracle Of Seaweed

Jul 17, 2012
Originally published on July 19, 2012 7:41 am

A while back, a craze hit my kids' school. It seemed as though everyone in the lunchroom was bringing in those little green packs of seaweed from Trader Joe's — roasted, salted nori, sometimes flavored with wasabi. (Most of these kids like yogurt and olives, too.) Granted, our town has an idiosyncratic population, and many of the parents are health-minded. It was the kids, though, who couldn't get enough of them.

I understood how they felt. When I was pregnant, for a while I wouldn't eat anything but cucumber rolls, and it wasn't about the cucumber. What I really wanted was the mineral, iodized flavor of the seaweed they were wrapped in — that dense hit of umami, satisfying and mouth-filling when plain, roaring to life with a kiss of salt or soy.

Here in western Massachusetts, seaweed is hardly the first vegetable one seeks out. The summer farm stands are heaped first with asparagus and strawberries, later with corn and zucchini, last with butternut and pumpkins. Around here, you can't always get the best fish or the freshest. But because seaweed dries well and it's light enough to ship vast distances, even in our landlocked region it's not hard to find.

For the most part, the most readily available seaweeds are the ones we've lifted from Japanese culture and cuisine, so we've come to recognize them by their Japanese names (nori for laver, kombu for kelp, wakame, arame and so forth). If the craving for seaweed hasn't yet made a convert of you, the nutritional benefits may. Seaweed is packed with iodine, vitamins and other essential trace minerals used by the body, and its starchy phycocolloids aid in removing heavy metals from our systems.

I think of nori, the ubiquitous red seaweed that dries to black or green, as the gateway to seaweed. You can buy it crisp, roasted and salty, or buy it plain and prepare it yourself with some oil and salt in the oven. You can wrap it around rice for sushi maki. But the most irresistible way I know to eat nori is in sesame nori crisps. These I discovered at parties, where the same friend habitually brought a batch to share. Quietly but invariably, a crowd would develop around her Tupperware. For years we called it "Laurie" nori, even though she kept telling us the recipe was actually from The Voluptuous Vegan. When I finally asked her for the recipe, she warned me to make an extra batch for the cook, and since that day I always have.

The variety of seaweed is vast: broad, flowing, olive-colored kelp; translucent green wakame; crunchy emerald samphire; smooth and rusty dulse; transparent, jellylike agar-agar. Personally, I'm very partial to hijiki or hiziki, whose dark and pulpy threads look and feel like juicy black grapefruit cells, exploding on the tongue in a burst of soy. Those who don't like seaweed tend to object to its texture. Some experience the moist marine surface of seaweed as "slimy." (What makes nori so broadly popular, I think, is that it's so often prepared and eaten crisp, like a potato chip.) The flavors of seaweed itself tend to be mild. Its payload of umami is powerful, but subtle, too.

For the widest variety of seaweed and the cheapest price, an Asian market is the best place to go hunting. If you're seeking out a particular variety there, though, the labeling can be cryptic ("Calories: 0. Ingredients: Seaweed"). It's not so hard once you know how to recognize the seaweed you want by sight, though, since the cellophane is always transparent. For fancier packaging, English labeling (and higher prices), try a natural foods store or specialty market.

If you're a frugal-minded locavore, you may be wondering if you can skip the shops altogether and forage for your own seaweed. In cold and relatively clean northern waters, the answer is a qualified yes. All seaweed is edible, but not all of it is palatable. Don't pick up dried seaweed lying along the shore — wait until low tide and collect newly exposed, wet seaweed before drying it or eating fresh. Don't eat any seaweed from a body of water that's near industrial or radioactive waste outlets (to state the obvious), or whose fish you wouldn't eat. If you have a thyroid condition, ask your doctor for general guidance on eating high-iodine foods.

Of course, some of these advisories won't matter as much if you're using seaweed for compost as so many fortunate coastal gardeners do. Or if you're using it as a fright wig, as my son does. Just remember that no matter how good seaweed looks on the body, it's even better in it.


Recipe: Sesame Nori Crisps

This is adapted from recipes that can be found in The Voluptuous Vegan by Myra Kornfeld (Clarkson Potter 2000) and Clean Food by Terry Walters (Sterling Epicure 2009). Both brown rice and nori can be found in natural foods stores. But for big, inexpensive packs of nori with 50 sheets or more (which you'll suddenly find you need after making this recipe), go to Asian markets. Be careful not to overtoast the nori, as the sesame seeds can easily burn.

Makes 6 generous snack servings

6 sheets toasted nori

1/4 cup canola oil

1/4 cup brown rice syrup

Sea salt or other fine salt

Pinch of cayenne or other red pepper (optional)

1 1/2 cups white sesame seeds

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Line two baking sheets with parchment paper. Lay out the nori in a single layer on the parchment paper.

In a small bowl or measuring cup, thoroughly whisk together the oil, rice syrup, salt and cayenne if using. Using a pastry brush, generously coat the top of each piece of nori with the syrup mixture. When you've coated the top surface of all the nori, sprinkle with sesame seeds and salt. Toast in oven 5 to 7 minutes, until the seeds are light brown.

Re-whisk the syrup mixture. When the nori has cooled enough to handle, flip it over, brush the other side with the syrup and sprinkle with seeds and salt. Return to the oven for another 5 to 7 minutes. Remove it from the oven and let cool completely. Break it into large pieces and store in an airtight container. If it absorbs moisture from the air and gets floppy, toast it gently in the oven (at 200 degrees) to get rid of the moisture, and it cools to a crisp state again.


Recipe: Soy-Braised Hijiki And Carrots

Like many other classic Japanese preparations, this is an adaptation of one that can be found in Elizabeth Andoh's Washoku (10 Speed Press 2005). If you haven't got any sake on hand, you can use rice wine (like Chinese shaoxing) or dry sherry. You could also substitute mirin, if you omit the sugar from the recipe.

Makes 2 to 4 servings as a side dish

For The Sea Stock

1 piece dried kombu (kelp), about 4 or 5 inches on each side

Small handful bonito flakes

For The Hijiki

1 cup dried hijiki

1 teaspoon vegetable oil

1 carrot, peeled and cut into julienne strips or coarsely grated

1 tablespoon sake

1 tablespoon sugar

2 to 3 tablespoons soy sauce

1 tablespoon white sesame seeds, freshly toasted in a skillet

For The Sea Stock

In a small saucepan, soak the kelp in about 1 1/4 cups of fresh water for 10 to 15 minutes. When it has softened, bring to a simmer and shut off the flame. Scatter the bonito flakes over the soaked seaweed. After 3 or 4 minutes, or when the flakes begin to sink, strain the liquid into a measuring cup. You'll need about 1 cup.

For The Hijiki

Soak the hijiki in warm water to cover for 15 to 20 minutes, or until soft. It will expand to many times its original volume, so choose a 2-quart bowl. Drain off the deep brown liquid. Rinse and drain again. Pat away the excess moisture with paper towels.

Heat the oil in a skillet, preferably nonstick, over high heat. Add the hijiki and quickly saute, stirring constantly, for 1 to 2 minutes. When it becomes aromatic and a bit glossy, add the carrot and continue to saute for another minute.

Drizzle in the sake and toss the contents of the skillet until the sake evaporates. Add 1/2 cup of the stock and lower the heat to maintain a steady, gentle simmer. Partially cover the pan, swirling the pan occasionally in circular motions to ensure even cooking. Check the level of liquid, adding stock or water to keep the food from scorching. Cook 5 to 6 minutes, or until nearly all the liquid is gone. Add the sugar and the remaining 1/2 cup stock and continue to cook uncovered for 6 to 7 minutes, or until nearly all the liquid is gone. Test a piece of hijiki. It should give easily when pinched. If it does not, add a few spoonfuls of water and continue to simmer until tender. Do not add any soy sauce until the hijiki is tender.

Add 2 tablespoons soy sauce and cook uncovered 1 to 2 minutes, or until the liquid is nearly gone. Taste and balance any unwanted sweetness by adding a few drops more soy sauce.

Remove the pan from the heat and let the hijiki mixture cool, covered. It is during this cooling-down period that the flavors meld and enhance one another.

This dish is typically served at room temperature, but if you prefer to serve it hot, reheat it after it has cooled for 20 to 30 minutes. Just before serving, drain off the excess liquid and place small mounds of the mixture in individual serving dishes. Garnish each portion with sesame seeds. The finished dish will keep, well covered, in the refrigerator for up to 5 days.


Recipe: Wakame Seaweed Salad

This is the salad you often find served in sushi restaurants, with its tart bite of rice vinegar and refreshing coolness.

Makes 4 servings as side salad

About 1 cup dried wakame seaweed

2 1/2 tablespoons rice vinegar

2 tablespoons soy sauce

2 tablespoons canola or other vegetable oil

1 tablespoon sesame oil

1 tablespoon sugar

Pinch of salt

1 teaspoon grated, peeled ginger

1 fresh small radish, sliced as thin as possible

2 tablespoons freshly toasted white sesame seeds (optional)

Soak the wakame in fresh cool water. When it has expanded and softened, about 5 to 10 minutes, drain thoroughly. Gently squeeze to remove excess water. Slice into 1/3-inch strips.

Whisk or blend together the rice vinegar, soy sauce, vegetable oil, sesame oil and sugar. I use an immersion blender for a more emulsified result. If you just whisk the dressing with a fork, the texture is thinner but the taste equally good. Add salt to taste and the grated ginger.

Toss the sliced, drained wakame with the dressing and garnish with the sliced radish. Serve well chilled, sprinkled with the sesame seeds just before serving.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.