You've heard that you should eat more kale. Now a small but growing industry wants you to eat more kelp.
Seaweed production has long been a big industry in Asia. But recently, American entrepreneurs have launched new enterprises that grow fresh and frozen seaweed right here in the States.
Just off the Maine coast, I caught up with Peter Fischer, Peter Arnold and Seth Barker, whose new venture, Maine Fresh Sea Farms, is yielding its first full harvest. From a small skiff out in the clean waters of Maine's Damariscotta estuary, they winch up a rope that's heavy with floppy sheets of glistening kelp.
Back in September, they set tiny starter plants of three varieties of edible seaweed out here: kelp, dulse and alaria. Now they have several wide lines of biomass that extend out for yards, bulging just under the water's surface.
"These have been growing really fast," Arnold says, marveling at the seaweed's speedy growth. "Some of them are well over 10 feet."
These men are all older than 65, and they've worked various marine endeavors for decades. They've watched the decline of some of Maine's traditional fisheries: sardine, cod, and more recently, shrimp.
For this latest venture, they're getting some financial help from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and from a local nonprofit development agency. Arnold says the hope is that seaweed farming can boost and diversify existing infrastructure and expertise in the state's seafaring communities.
"No one was really doing fresh, at least here in this market," Arnold says. "So we thought, 'That's an opening.' "
Maybe they've found one. The greens are selling for up to $15 a pound at retail; restaurants pay a bit less. Another Maine company, Ocean Approved, is selling truckloads of frozen Gulf of Maine seaweed to hospitals and schools — including the universities of Iowa and Texas.
People have foraged wild seaweed off the Eastern Seaboard for centuries. And some small businesses have grown up around harvesting wild seaweed for human and animal consumption. But now a much more active effort to grow seaweed in the U.S. is afoot.
"You know what? Kelp is the new kale," says Barton Seaver, who directs Harvard's Healthy and Sustainable Food Program. A former D.C.-area chef, he's all-in for seaweed and has even published a seaweed cookbook. "Watch out, 'cause it's coming, and it'll be everywhere in the next decade," he says.
The virtues of macro-algae are many, in Seaver's eyes: They require no fertilizer, no pesticides, no fresh water, no arable land. Their nutritional profile is admirable, he says, providing healthy doses of iodine as well as potassium, calcium and other micro-nutrients, protein, soluble fiber, and Omega-3 fatty acids.
And seaweed's benefits aren't just for humans. It's quick growth means quick carbon dioxide uptake, which can reduce ocean acidification. Seaweed can filter excess nitrogen and phosphorous from the water, too. A National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration-funded project in Washington State's Puget Sound is aiming to prove that farmed seaweed can create a "protective halo" around stressed sea habitats.
It's not just a sustainable crop: Seaver says it's restorative.
"And that's a very real difference and a major evolutionary point in the sustainability dialogue," he notes. "We're not at a point where we're just focused on doing no harm. We're really beginning to investigate and discover food-production methods that allow us to restore and heal environments."
"And," Seaver adds, "it's delicious."
"I grew up in Maine, and this is what you used to abuse your younger sister on the beach — whipping her with kelp," says Neal Harden, the chef at a soon-to-open vegetarian version of New York City's Michelin-rated ABC Kitchen. He acknowledges that seaweed can seem like a funny choice for haute cuisine.
But Harden says he loves the stuff. "It brings a sort of brininess and this oceanic flavor," he says, as he tosses together dressing for a fettuccine dish he's developing for his new restaurant. "This dish just has so much umami, between the giant hen [of-the-woods] mushrooms I just threw in there and the seaweed."
Harden has been looking for a source of fresh ocean greens for his new menu. He says he's lucky to have found the Maine product, which he plans to incorporate into several dishes — including the fettuccine and a morel and dulse salad — while it's in season (seaweed grows best in the colder months).
He's not the only one getting into kelp. Several chefs in Maine's vibrant food scene, true to the locavore ethic, are giving Maine sea greens a try.
The collective American palate may still take some time to fully embrace farmed U.S. macro-algae. But if the seaweed revolution hasn't quite arrived yet, like the kelp in Maine's Damariscotta River, it's showing some pretty rapid growth.
Fettucine With Maine Seaweed, Market Mushrooms And Spring Onions
Recipe courtesy of Neal Harden, chef de cuisine at ABCV — the forthcoming vegetarian venture from ABC Kitchen
½ cup mixed fresh Maine seaweed (sugar kelp, winged kelp, kelp stipes), blanched and shocked in ice water, cut or torn into bite-sized pieces
¼ cup spring onion, white parts, cut into thin rings + 1 tsp. sliced spring onion greens
4 whole shiitake caps, cut in half
½ cup (loosely packed) oyster mushrooms, stems removed, torn or cut into bite-sized pieces
1/8 tsp. salt
1 pinch kelp powder (optional but delicious)
5 grinds of fresh black pepper (plus more to finish)
2-3 tsp. extra virgin olive oil
1 cup fresh fettucine
7 sprigs of fresh dill
Bring a small pan to medium-low heat. Sweat the spring onions in the olive oil until they soften and begin to get translucent. Add the mushrooms, salt, pepper and kelp powder. Turn up the heat just slightly. Cook until mushrooms are cooked through and releasing lots of juices. Add the seaweed and cook until it's heated through and all flavors are melded. Add additional salt to taste.
Add cooked and drained fettuccine to the saute pan. Cook until pasta absorbs the juices, adding a bit of pasta water if sauce begins to dry out. Finish with additional fresh pepper and dill sprigs. Top with fresh, grated Parmesan if desired.
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
So step aside kale - but there is a new superfood on the scene. And its boosters want to convince you to eat more kelp. Fred Bever of Maine Public Radio follows a trail of a fledgling market for fresh seaweed farmed in America.
FRED BEVER, BYLINE: From a small skiff out on Maine's coastal Damariscotta River, Peter Fisher and Peter Arnold winch up a rope that's heavy with floppy sheets of filmy, glistening kelp.
PETER FISHER: Wow. Well, that's starting look really good.
BEVER: They set tiny starter plants of three types of seaweed here in September for their new venture, Main Fresh Sea Farms. They marvel at the kelp's speedy growth, including stalks or stipes.
FISHER: Look at the length of those stipes.
PETER ARNOLD: These have been growing really fast. Some of them are well over 10 feet.
BEVER: Fisher and Arnold have both been working on the ocean for decades, and they've watched the decline of many traditional fisheries in Maine. They imagine a new industry harnessing the ready-made infrastructure and skills of the state seafaring communities farming fresh sea greens.
ARNOLD: No one was really doing fresh, at least here in this market. So we thought that's an opening.
BEVER: The greens are selling for up to $15 a pound. Americans are familiar with dried seaweed imported from Asia for sushi and snacks. And people have foraged for wild seaweeds for centuries. But now a much more active effort to farm seaweeds in the U.S. is afoot. And some believe it's the forefront of a food revolution.
BARTON SEAVER: You know what? Kelp is the new kale.
BEVER: Barton Seaver directs Harvard's Healthy and Sustainable Food program.
SEAVER: Watch out because it's coming. And it'll be everywhere, I say, within a decade.
BEVER: The virtues of macroalgae are so many in Seaver's eyes. They require no fertilizer, no pesticides, no fresh water, no land. Their nutritional profile is admirable, he says, providing healthy doses of iodine as well as calcium and other micronutrients, protein, soluble fiber and omega-3 fatty acids. And seaweed's benefits aren't just for humans. It's quick growth means quick carbon dioxide uptake, which can reduce ocean acidification. Seaver says it's not just a sustainable crop. It's restorative.
SEAVER: We're really beginning to investigate and discover food production methods that allow us to restore and heal environments. And that's exciting, and it's delicious.
BEVER: But is it delicious?
NEAL HARDEN: I grew up in Maine, and this is, you know, what you used to abuse your younger sister on the beach, whipping her with a kelp (laughter) or what you smell on the beach, you know, rotting in the sun. So...
BEVER: Despite such memories, chef Neal Harden likes seaweed a lot. He's been looking for a source of fresh ocean greens for the menu at a soon-to-open vegetarian version of New York City's Michelin-rated ABC Kitchen. He's shipped in the main product to make a fettuccine with spring vegetables and kelp. Brownish when fresh, the cut kelp turns bright green when he blanches it.
HARDEN: It brings a sort of - a brininess and this, like, oceanic flavor that you normally don't taste in that cuisine. So I think it's special in that way.
This dish has so much umami between the giant handful of mushrooms I just threw in there and the seaweed, it's good.
BEVER: The collective American palate may still take some time to fully embrace farmed U.S. seaweed. But the industry is expanding in Maine and elsewhere. And even if the seaweed revolution hasn't quite arrived yet, like the kelp in the Damariscotta River, it's showing some pretty rapid growth. For NPR News, I'm Fred Bever in Portland, Maine. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.