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Flash in the pan

SeaWeed, Eat Weed

—Ari LeVaux

Seaweed, it turns out, is the answer to multiple problems that have been dogging me. One has been the question of what the most appropriate and healthy greens are to be eating in winter, and another, has been how to coerce my three-year-old to eat any green material, whatsoever.

Seaweed is technically an algae, not a plant, but it is very plantlike on the cellular level and delivers many of the health benefits we get from greens, including vitamins and fiber, plus other goodies like iodine and protein. When preserved via drying, seaweed is much less resource-intensive than fresh veggies, which must be shipped quickly and refrigerated. Seaweed farming has been called, “climate smart” by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization, and the practice not only sequesters carbon dioxide but requires no land clearing, fertilizer, or any other additives. Nobody is displaced by seaweed farming. And the kid puts away sheets of nori like they’re fruit roll-ups.

Seaweed delivers a level of satisfaction beyond what we expect from your typical leaf, in part because it brings with it the wild nature of the sea, including particles and flavors from the ocean that leave their imprint or remain inextricably bound to its salty flesh. The meaty essence is emboldened by the high protein content of seaweed—nori is about forty percent protein.

One of the many proteins found in seaweed is glutamate, which is a form of the infamous flavor enhancer monosodium glutamate (MSG). While often assumed to be some artificial chemical developed in a Chinese lab to fool our senses, MSG was first discovered in Japan as a component of kelp—a seaweed. This built-in MSG, a.k.a. umami, is one of the reasons why seaweed tastes so good.

Seaweed is also a rich source of carrageenan, which is used in vegetarian and vegan food products for its thickening qualities. When soymilk or rice milk-based ice cream taste too good to be true, you probably have carrageenan, in part, to thank.

There are hundreds of species of seaweed, each with its own purpose. Kelp for soup and MSG; wakame, kombu, dulse for salad; hijiki for cooking; and Irish Moss for blancmange, a traditional vanilla pudding from the UK.

Many of seaweed’s freshwater relatives are toxic, so please don’t apply anything I’m saying to freshwater algae. But most forms of marine algae are edible—provided they don’t come from contaminated water. This isn’t to say that all edible seaweeds are yummy. Some are too tough to chew, or too hairy or slimy for comfort. But whenever I’m on the coast, I’m always nibbling curiously at the local talent. There have been camping trips on the coast of Maine, and in the Pacific Northwest, when I was able to include it in meals.

In Brazil, when we were footloose and fancy-free, my wife and I plucked seaweed from the beach swells. She washed the seaweed and prepared a salad with dried shrimp from the local market. Our Brazilian friends thought it was weird, as the local seaweed isn’t commonly eaten there.

The seaweed salad that is most known and loved, from Brazil to Billings, is the bright green translucent wakame seaweed salad served at every sushi restaurant on earth. Though many dollars are charged for a small plate of this stuff, it usually comes in large frozen tubs from Costco or at a local Asian market for a fraction of the price.

Not partial to any food that contains the word “salad,” my three-year-old enjoys nori in his morning egg, which he takes with bacon.

There is solid precedent for combining seaweed with both pork or egg. My aforementioned Chinese restaurant makes a pork with seaweed dish that’s sweetly dark and fatty, and there are many Korean dishes that combine seaweed, egg, and pork as well, not to mention Japanese style omelet sushi, wrapped in nori.

I prepare his egg by crumbling half a sheet of nori and scattering the shards in oil on a hot pan, during the brief window between when the oil is hot and when I add the beaten egg. Don’t burn seaweed, from high or prolonged heat, unless you like the taste of burnt hair. If it does burn, wash the pan and start over.

After the egg is sputtering in the pan, crush the other half-sheet of nori and sprinkle it on top, then proceed as if it were an omelet. Fold it in half, slide it onto a plate, and serve. The kid inevitably requests that I throw some cheese in the fold, which I think is awful. There are a handful of other foods, along with cheese, that I find clash with seaweed, such as basil and kale. But the foods that work, they work very well, like soy sauce, rice, and kimchi.

For a simple meal, I often combine these seaweed friendly ingredients in a bowl, sometimes with egg or meat. The rice can be freshly made or leftover, fried briefly in oil. The meat, chopped bacon or fried burger meat, for example, should be in small pieces, and placed in a little pile on the rice, along with a portion of kimchi, a dollop of mayo, a scrambled or fried egg, and whatever else seems appropriate. Drizzle with soy sauce, and crumble a sheet of nori on top. The shards will wave in the steam rising off the rice, like polyps of a coral reef. In the middle of winter, that looks, and tastes, quite nice.

Ari LeVaux writes Flash in the Pan, a syndicated weekly food column that has appeared in more than 50 newspapers in 22 states. Follow him on Twitter at @arilevaux.


Organic conference to focus on producing food and fiber amid drought

—Katie Goetz

“Is it drought, or is this the new normal?”

That question will kick off the 2014 New Mexico Organic Farming Conference, which will take place on February 14 and 15 at the Marriott Albuquerque Pyramid North. Certified organic farmers and ranchers from across the Southwest, as well as those interested in organic practices, are invited to attend.

This year’s organic conference will feature talks on such topics as understanding water rights, harvesting water, drip irrigation, managing soil salinity, destocking and restocking beef herds, and land restoration.

The New Mexico Organic Farming Conference is the state’s best-attended agricultural conference, drawing upwards of seven hundred people each year. New Mexico’s organic agricultural sector is growing, too, adding about approximately fifty million dollars to the state’s economy every year.

To see the agenda and register for the conference, visit www.farmtotablenm.org.

For more information on NMDA’s Organic Program and organic certification, visit www.nmda.nmsu.edu.

 
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