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Seaweed: It's All That

Updated: May 10, 2021

Photo by Marla Aufmuth

Tangled clumps of seaweed strewn along beaches like fractal tales of the intertidal zone are indicators that the season is starting. When anchored in the water, they are pure poetry, swaying with the currents. These algae are beautiful and vital to the well-being of the ocean. They are the basis of the marine food web; sea creatures need them for sustenance and protection.

Seaweed also reduces coastal erosion, buffers against waves, and filters excess nutrients from wastewater. It grows quickly in the spring and early summer, as it’s a voracious sequester of carbon from the air and the saltwater. On land, it’s nothing short of miraculous - researchers at UC Davis found that including seaweed in cow feed reduced their methane emissions by 82%. Since it requires no water and fertilizer, they are being intently focused on producing biofuels.

And it’s a superfood. Seaweed is naturally high in many vitamins and antioxidants and rich in magnesium, which reduces stress, and calcium and iron. It has iodine and DHA omega 3s in spades. In fact, it’s one of the most nutritious things you can eat. Scientists found a compound in common seaweed that could stop the body from absorbing fat. Another study found women who eat seaweed while pregnant, give birth to better future readers.

Research is also showing that the sex life of seaweed is rich and varied. Seaweed can be hermaphrodites, asexual, intergenerational, polyamorous, self-perpetuating, male-female traditional, and in winter-spring couples. It stands to reason that with such raucous sex lives, seaweed is a potent aphrodisiac. This is in part due to the high vitamin B which gives you energy and helps with hormone production. It's rich in iodine, which is libido-boosting, a good source of manganese, a mineral known to help maintain a healthy sex drive.

So why don’t we eat more seaweed? Outside of sushi restaurants, we rarely see it. And even many of those in the United States make sushi rolls with the nori wrappers inside the rice to please the anti-seaweed American palate. Though, some chefs have been embracing it– Matthew Kammermer, executive chef at The Harbor House Inn in Elk, Mendocino forages seaweed in the nearby coves. He uses it to infuse butter, flakes it into bread, and even serves seaweed ice cream.

Most people want to like seaweed, but it’s still hard to weave it into your repertoire- one of the simplest ways to do this is by making dashi broth. This is made with dried kombu and either bonito flakes, or shiitake mushrooms. Dashi is a light, delicate broth; when some miso is mixed in, it’s a rich, hearty one. You can add soba noodles to it, or braise seafood or vegetables in your dashi for soup. I love to poach vegetables and eggs in dashi broth.

If you ferment, add seaweed to your kimchi or sauerkraut. Mix it with a salmon burger and put it on a grill. You can make pesto from seaweed to toss with soba noodles or use as a sauce for squash.

In early summer in the SF Bay area, when both anchovies and seaweed are in season, I like to make pasta with seaweed and then toss it anchovy and garlic sauce, sort of a subtle salty, fishy, “intertidal zone” experience.

Seaweed is even more amazing if you go forage it yourself. Imagine early morning at the beach, the excitement of the hunt, and escaping the impact zones just as waves crash. In Northern California, early summer is prime foraging time, as seaweed has large blades during this time to absorb sunlight, and in the winter, they stay small to survive the storms.

There are a few spots left for Seaweed Camp on May 29th at Muir Beach, and June 27th.

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