Most Americans know seaweed as two things: a wrapper on a California roll and a slimy obstacle en route to an ocean dip.
But along the nation's coastlines, small and dedicated groups of seaweed enthusiasts are turning what they like to call "sea vegetables" into a thriving cottage industry. Not to mention some pretty tasty dinners.
"People who live by the coast are often the least likely to want to try seaweed," says James Jungwirth, a Williams, Ore., man who harvests his own seaweed and likes to snack on brown kelp fronds.
"They wrinkle up their noses at it because they're thinking of the rotting piles of seaweed that end up on the beach," he says. But Jungwirth thinks that's like not wanting to eat vegetables just because some end up in compost piles.
Most commercial seaweed - the sort used to make the mountains of sushi sold daily in America or that is processed to make thickeners that end up in everything from baked goods to ice cream - comes from Asia.
But seaweed proponents like to point out that varieties gathered from America's coasts offer a wide world of culinary options.
"I love the taste of it," says Linda Conroy, who runs a seaweed harvesting trip for women each summer on Lopez Island, off the coast of Washington. "Every seaweed tastes different. My favorite seaweed is the giant kelp. My whole entire body comes alive."
Part of what she does is teach people how to treat seaweed as a mainstream ingredient. That means thinking beyond sushi and miso soup, another common Japanese dish that includes seaweed.
Conroy offers simple recipes, such as gomashio, a Japanese condiment made from crushed dried nori seaweed, toasted sesame seeds and sometimes sea salt. It often is added to salads, rice and soups. She even has a seaweed oatmeal cookie recipe.
Seaweed also is a natural for many salads and soups, which is how Donna Bishop likes to sneak it into her husband's diet.
The 60-year-old Gualala, Calif., grandmother often gets up before dawn to clamber down a cliff, don a wet suit and plunge into the chilly ocean in search of nori and sea palm seaweed. Some she'll eat, the rest she'll sell dried or fresh at a farmers market.
"My own husband won't eat seaweed," she says. At least not knowingly.
Bishop likes to use kombu, a large variety of kelp, as others do bay leaves. She adds it to soups while they simmer, then discards it before serving. Or she'll grind up dried seaweed and use it to season her soups and pastas.
And to hook those who doubt seaweed's culinary virtues, she makes a sort of trail mix by roasting sea palm (a Pacific Coast seaweed) and dried nori (the sort used in sushi), then toss it with sugar-coated almonds and a bit of salt.
It's so good, she says her grandchildren not only eat it, they help her harvest the seaweed.
Where to get it
Dried seaweed is widely available at natural foods stores, where it can sell for $5 an ounce. Harvesting it yourself is much cheaper, but it's also slippery, dangerous, backbreaking work, says Jennifer Mondragon, a marine biologist in Juneau, Alaska.
"I'd suggest people start off buying it," she says. You don't have to be trained to harvest seaweed, she says, but you do need to know what kind you're looking for, whether you need a license, what's in season, if the area is polluted and when the tide is right.
She and her husband, fellow marine biologist Jeff Mondragon, wrote a book called "Seaweeds of the Pacific Coast" to help. And because so many people requested ideas, they included recipes, such as corn chowder and cucumber salad.
On the opposite coast, Larch Hanson gathers alaria, digitata, dulse, kelp and nori seaweeds along a chain of islands near Steuben, Maine. He has been harvesting for 35 years, and his business, Maine Seaweed Company, has gone from selling seaweed locally to shipping it around the world.
During the low tides of May and June, he and his apprentices are on the ocean by 4 a.m., searching for the perfect spot to navigate slippery rocks, pick wild seaweeds and pull the heavy bushels back to clean, sort and dry.
To help foragers in the Northeast, he wrote "Edible Sea Vegetables of the New England Coast," and even offers cooking tips on his Web site, including how to make seaweed salads similar to those sold in Japanese restaurants.
In Hawaii, seaweed is a traditional ingredient. It appears in dishes such as poke (pronounced po-KAY), a salad of crunchy, fresh seaweed mixed with marinated raw ahi fish that is a standard appetizer at parties and luaus.
In fact, poke is the signature dish of Sam Choy, one of Hawaii's best-known chefs. He remembers picking seaweed as a boy off the coast of Laie on Oahu's North Shore.
Now he gets his seaweed from Steve Katase, a marine biologist-turned seaweed farmer who runs Royal Hawaiian Sea Farms on the Kona Coast of Hawaii. He harvests up to 2 tons of seaweed a week, which he sells to grocers for less than $5 a pound.
"Growing up on the ocean," Choy says, "it was like harvesting vegetables in a regular vegetable garden."
Hijiki seaweed salad
1/2 cup dried hijiki seaweed
1 tablespoon soy sauce
2 tablespoons sesame oil
1 large yellow onion, diced
1 large carrot, cut into thin rounds
1 cup frozen peas
1/4 cup whole-grain mustard
1/4 cup cider vinegar
3 tablespoons peanut butter
Place the hijiki in a medium saucepan and cover with warm water. Let stand off the stove 5 minutes, then drain and repeat.
After the second 5-minute soak, drain the hijiki and return it to the saucepan. Cover again with warm water. Add the soy sauce, then bring to a boil over high heat. Lower heat to simmer and cook 30 minutes, adding water as needed to maintain the level.
Meanwhile, heat the oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add the onion, carrot and peas and saute until the onions are lightly browned and the carrots tender, about 7 minutes.
When the vegetables have cooked, transfer them to a medium bowl and set aside.
To make the dressing, in a small bowl whisk together the mustard, vinegar and peanut butter. Set aside.
When the hijiki has finished cooking, drain it and add it to the vegetables. Toss, then drizzle with the dressing and toss again to coat evenly. Refrigerate 1 hour to let flavors combine. Serves four.