Seaweed is making chefs swoon

The aquatic plants are finding their way onto many a menu owing to nutrition, variety and versatility.

Up until recently, most of our exposure to seaweed was limited to sushi night and when it gets caught in a boat propeller. But visit inventive restaurants these days and you’ll see chefs across cuisines experimenting with it in ways never seen.

“Seaweed snuck up on me,” says Chef Chris Pandel of Cold Storage, a seafood restaurant in Chicago. He’s started using it in the past year, often adding it to broths that are then used to refresh sauces, glaze vegetables, braise meats, and as a component in pasta dough and vinaigrettes. “Depending on the variety we are working with—and I tend to use kombu, nori and dulse—we can find smoky flavors, rich salinity, or sweetness, to name a few.”

Just down West Fulton Street from Cold Storage is The Publican, where Chef Cosmo Goss’s is utilizing the plants for their flavor profiles. Three types of seaweed are Goss’s go-to’s: dulse, sea grapes and mermaid’s hair. They find their way into seafood stew, a tonnato (a creamy, tangy sauce usually flavored with tuna and capers), and have offered a kale-seaweed salad (a spin on surf ’n turf). “I like it because it adds the flavor of the sea, but keeps it vegetarian, plus it’s super healthy and full of antioxidants,” he explains.

Unlike chefs' other fixations, such as pork belly and foie gras, seaweed is a health boon. Consider wakame, which is stirred into miso soup. One ounce contains 14 percent of your daily folate and 20 percent of your manganese needs, two oft-overlook nutrients. Laverbread,a traditional Welsh dish, uses locally harvested laver, an algae variety that grows on the rocks that protrude from the sea on the periphery of the British Isles. (Seaweed is actually a common name for countless species of marine plants and algae.) Laver is rich in vitamins A and C, an antioxidant. Other seaweed varieties contain healthy doses of niacin, iron, iodine and protein, as well as anti-inflammatory and anti-microbial agents (the National Ocean Service adds that researchers are testing seaweed for its cancer-fighting properties).

Given seaweed’s health profile, its ubiquity is fortunate. At downtown Palo Alto’s wonderful Bird Dog, Chef Robbie Wilson uses the seaweed found in his backyard. “The Pacific Ocean successfully allocates ingredients every day,” he explains. “All of our seaweed is harvested by hand, via divers.”

For at-home chefs looking to incorporate seaweed into their own cooking, certainly you can make seaweed salads and broths; both fresh and dehydrated varieties work, depending on what’s locally available. And many stores carry seaweed sheets for snacking, and powder for seasoning. But if you want to get a little chef-y, Wilson recommends making your own smoked seaweed powder, which isn’t that much more complicated than making kale chips. Here’s what to do: Grill fresh, vitamin K-rich kelp (available at some Asian markets and specialty stores) over wood for 45 minutes, then transfer to a low oven until it’s completely and uniformly dehydrated. (Alternatively, place on a baking sheet in a low oven, turning occasionally, until seaweed is uniformly dry, but not burned.) Using a spice mill, mortar and pestle or food processor, grind the kelp into a powder. Store in an airtight container for use on fish, meat, vegetables, vinaigrettes, or anything you want to have, in Wilson's words, “a profound submerged-smoky expression of flavor.”