Foraged local seaweed captures essence of California cuisine

[USA] The farmer-forager is leading a group of seaweed harvesters toward her favorite patch of wakame on a hidden beach north of Jenner on the Sonoma coast. It is early June during the lowest tide of the year, but the waves will be returning soon.

Heidi Herrmann holds a handful of sea palm seaweed while harvesting north of Jenner.
Heidi Herrmann holds a handful of sea palm seaweed while harvesting north of Jenner.

California is home to 800 known species of marine algae, and the extravagantly exposed rocks are draped in varieties green and brown, long and leafy, slick and corduroy. Trying to keep up, we are distracted by the technicolor landscape of aquamarine anemones, purple spiked urchin and tangerine, chubby-legged sea stars.

Heidi Herrmann, the owner of Strong Arm Farm in Healdsburg, harvests kombu seaweed north of Jenner.
Heidi Herrmann, the owner of Strong Arm Farm in Healdsburg, harvests kombu seaweed north of Jenner.

A variety used in Japanese seaweed salad, wakame grows far out on the rocks, and Herrmann explains how to identify its ruffled golden-green strips, each about 4 inches wide and several feet long.

Heidi Herrmann, the owner of Strong Arm Farm in Healdsburg, harvests kombu seaweed north of Jenner.
Heidi Herrmann, the owner of Strong Arm Farm in Healdsburg, harvests kombu seaweed north of Jenner.

Anchored to the rocks in clusters, the seaweed can grow back best if you harvest it with garden or kitchen shears about 6 inches from the base, as if it were superlong, mucilaginous leaves of lettuce.

Heidi Herrmann and Jack Herron harvest kombu seaweed north of Jenner.
Heidi Herrmann and Jack Herron harvest kombu seaweed north of Jenner.

“Luckily for harvesters, there’s something at each tidal zone,” says Herrmann, who would come back another day for other varieties.

Heidi Herrmann and Jesse Kelly with bags full of kombu seaweed they collected north of Jenner.
Heidi Herrmann and Jesse Kelly with bags full of kombu seaweed they collected north of Jenner.

The proprietor of Strong Arm Farm in Healdsburg, Herrmann started harvesting and drying seaweed over a decade ago and sells the mineral-rich plant protein to grocers and chefs throughout the Bay Area. Restaurants as diverse as Flour + Water in the Mission and Mister Jiu’s in Chinatown have begun using fresh seaweed in their menus, giving work to a small crew of foragers who canvas shorelines from Monterey Bay to the Mendocino Coast.

Jesse Kelly trims the plants during the harvest of kombu seaweed.
Jesse Kelly trims the plants during the harvest of kombu seaweed.

A wild food that expresses the region’s terroir with flavors of seawater and umami, seaweed has become part of the Bay Area palate of ingredients. In addition to wakame, local edible varieties include sea lettuce, a tender green algae used in salads and soups; kombu, a kelp that’s the base of Japanese dashi broth; nori, a wild version of the farmed seaweed used in sushi; and bladderwrack, which is used medicinally for its high iodine content.

Heidi Herrmann, the owner of Strong Arm Farm in Healdsburg, leads her helpers as they pack out more than 100 pounds of kombu and bladderwrack seaweeds they collected north of Jenner.
Heidi Herrmann, the owner of Strong Arm Farm in Healdsburg, leads her helpers as they pack out more than 100 pounds of kombu and bladderwrack seaweeds they collected north of Jenner.

Particularly popular with chefs, sea palm is a tender, ribbed seaweed with a red-brown color that San Francisco’s Lord Stanley restaurant recently served with pan-fried local halibut. The fresh seaweed was blanched and cut into the same-size pieces as accompanying pole beans, yellow wax beans and haricot verts.

Heidi Herrmann, the owner of Strong Arm Farm in Healdsburg, spreads out kombu seaweed on screens to dry at her ranch.
Heidi Herrmann, the owner of Strong Arm Farm in Healdsburg, spreads out kombu seaweed on screens to dry at her ranch.

“They obviously look really beautiful,” says Carrie Blease, co-chef at Lord Stanley, who uses seaweed once or twice a week, often in vegetarian dishes. “They offer a really interesting salinity to dishes and kind of an oceanic aspect.”

A wild food that expresses the region’s terroir with flavors of seawater and umami, seaweed has become part of the Bay Area palate of ingredients. In addition to wakame, local edible varieties include sea lettuce, a tender green algae used in salads and soups; kombu, a kelp that’s the base of Japanese dashi broth; nori, a wild version of the farmed seaweed used in sushi; and bladderwrack, which is used medicinally for its high iodine content.

Monica Simpson (left) Heidi Herrmann and Jesse Kelly rinse and prepare the seaweed for drying.
Monica Simpson (left) Heidi Herrmann and Jesse Kelly rinse and prepare the seaweed for drying.

Particularly popular with chefs, sea palm is a tender, ribbed seaweed with a red-brown color that San Francisco’s Lord Stanley restaurant recently served with pan-fried local halibut. The fresh seaweed was blanched and cut into the same-size pieces as accompanying pole beans, yellow wax beans and haricot verts.

“They obviously look really beautiful,” says Carrie Blease, co-chef at Lord Stanley, who uses seaweed once or twice a week, often in vegetarian dishes. “They offer a really interesting salinity to dishes and kind of an oceanic aspect.”

Heidi Herrmann, the owner of Strong Arm Farm in Healdsburg, harvests kombu seaweed with small shears north of Jenner.
Heidi Herrmann, the owner of Strong Arm Farm in Healdsburg, harvests kombu seaweed with small shears north of Jenner.

 

Fascination with Japanese ingredients and techniques has helped drive the demand for locally sourced nori and kombu, but seaweed also shows up in Chinese, Thai and other cuisines. Locally, it nourished generations of Pomo American Indians.

“It’s a big part of who I am,” says Tu David Phu, who grew up in Oakland eating the foods of his parents’ native Phu Quoc, a Vietnamese island. A former chef at Gather in Berkeley, Phu has recently been hosting seaweed-themed pop-up dinners that highlight his heritage. “It’s very healthy. It’s very plentiful. It’s very cutting edge.”

Phu even plans to open a seaweed-centric restaurant, and recently began teaming up on the pop-ups with Kevin Kelley, the winemaker and founder of Salinia Wine Co. The name of Kelley’s winery reflects his interest in natural wines with mineral, saline qualities, such as his Wellspring Solera Sonoma Coast Chardonnay. He paired that wine with Phu’s fresh tapioca noodles, tossed with egg yolks and shrimp and topped with chain bladder (Cystoseira osmundacea) seaweed, which adorned the dish like a string of tiny, briny Christmas tree lights.

As it turns out, Kelley is also a seaweed forager for restaurants. He collects seaweed year-round in a wet suit, floating above his harvest at the point when the tide covers it in a few feet of water.

(Experienced foragers know to only collect fresh seaweed that’s still growing. “The stuff that’s washed up on the sand is already rotting,” says Herrmann.)

 

View original article at: Foraged local seaweed captures essence of California cuisine

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