SOUTH PORTLAND, Maine — Fresh from the ocean, it’s slimy, salty and unappealing. But Maine seaweed, the not-so-secret weapon for a growing roster of local chefs, is coming ashore.
“Seaweed is now welcome on menus and highlighted as a main ingredient,” said Kennebunk chef David Ross of 50 Local, where seaweed in salads and entrees such as macaroni and cheese get top billing.
The seaweed evangelist was one of several chefs and food entrepreneurs singing algae’s culinary praises at The Maine Seaweed Festival held on the grounds of Southern Maine Community College last weekend. A longtime staple of Asian cuisine, seaweed is sashaying into much more than sushi.
Seaweed gazpacho, ice cream, crunch bars and fish and chips were served in the hot sun. Seaweed goat cheese smeared on seaweed bagels and popcorn flecked with seaweed sated the hungry throngs. Chefs such as Ross, who also owns wood-fired pizza shop Owen’s Farmhouse, bakes seaweed into pizza dough.
“It has been more of a deterrent for diners than an enhancement mainly because what comes to people’s mind when they hear seaweed is that pungent smell you get when you drive by the beach at a certain time,” said Ross, whose multicourse seaweed cooking demonstration attracted an at-capacity crowd Saturday.
“This is all changing now because more diners are seeking out ingredients at farmers markets and natural food stores, and seaweed harvesters have been well represented at farmers markets, offering samples, recipes and selling their items.”
One company, VitaminSea, is pushing the movement in Maine.
The Scarborough-based outfit harvests seaweed from Harpswell to Lubec and sells a line of seaweed in flakes, whole and bar form.
“The popularity of vegan and macrobiotic lifestyles are pushing the trend,” said co-owner Kelly Roth, who supplies many food companies such as Smiling Hill Farm and Little Lad’s with seaweed for their latest inventions.
From kelp to dulse, laver to alaria, sea vegetables no longer are reserved for Japanese cuisine. To prove it, Ross and chef Frank Giglio of Three Lily Farm in Thorndike concocted a gourmet dinner featuring the versatile, sustainable, plentiful sea veggie Saturday night.
Dried seaweed adds crunch to toppings and also is a great addition in fermentation. You can pan fry kelp with garlic and add it to meatballs, a tip Giglio shared during his demo.
“It’s a wild food,” said Giglio, a forager and self-described “DIY guy,” who added that he is a “big fan of the nutrients and minerals” from seaweed, chiefly iodine, in which “most people are deficient.”
Hillary Krapf, founder of the festival, staged the event for the second consecutive year to spread the word.
“Maine seaweed is an undervalued resource that people are not aware of,” she said. “I created this as a platform to meet your harvester.”
Merging land and sea is the theme. But in the food department, making kelp taste great is the goal. Tara Treichel of South Portland startup SeaMade sampled her kelp energy snacks made with dried fruits, whole grains and nuts. Festival attendees snapped them up.
As a pair of tourists who stumbled upon the scene set on the water at the entrance of Spring Point Ledge Lighthouse dipped spoons in chocolate seaweed ice cream, the secret was out.
“We are enjoying it very much. We just had kelp fish and chips,” Bill Seldon from New Jersey said. “I only think about seaweed at Japanese restaurants.”