Cultivating a Taste for Maine’s Seawood
Among the 2021 winners of the San-Francisco-based Good Foods Awards, three pop out as unexpected. Not the truffles, cheeses, fruit preserves, bacon, or wildflower honey. Many brands in these categories met the judges’ criteria for being both flavorful and responsibly produced. But so did three seaweed products from Maine, all developed by women.
“All of the social missions in the world don’t matter if people don’t find seaweed delicious. Right?” says Briana Warner of Atlantic Sea Farms, one of the winners.
In recent years, seaweed has morphed from a staple in health food stores to the vaunted vegetable of hip food bloggers. Heralded because it sucks up carbon dioxide, it’s gone from the naturally growing stuff you slip on when you launch your sailboat to a crop cultivated by environmentally aware farmers. Along the way, tasty and nutritious seaweed-based products have become much easier to find.
“I think that health is a major reason that Americans choose to eat seaweed,” says Dr. Mary Ellen Camire, a professor of food science and human nutrition at the University of Maine who studies consumer acceptance of healthful foods. Whether called sea vegetables, ocean herbs, or marine macroalgae, seaweed has important nutritive value, if consumed in the proper amounts.
If people are cutting down on sodium or switching to sea salt for its taste and texture, they could be at risk of getting too little iodine, Mary Ellen explains. A shortage of iodine can compromise healthy metabolism and present risks to pregnant women and the proper development of their unborn babies.
“Seaweed is a natural way to add that iodine back into the day,” Mary Ellen says.
And vegetarians: they may need a boost of Vitamin B12, important for brain function and general metabolism. After analyzing non-animal foods ranging from mushrooms to mung bean sprouts, Japanese researchers pinpointed the red seaweed nori as the best source of naturally occurring Vitamin B12.
Seaweed also offers plenty of gut-healthy fiber. “That’s something most Americans are not getting enough of,” Mary Ellen notes.
But nutrition was not the inspiration when Linnette and Shep Erhart started Maine Coast Sea Vegetables back in 1971. It was a pot of miso soup simmering in their farmhouse kitchen that had an unusually full, rich flavor. When they realized the source was a special ingredient—the wild seaweed they had gathered from the shores of the Schoodic Peninsula—the idea for their business was born.
Today, Maine Coast Sea Vegetables is widely recognized as a pioneer in the industry and a culinary leader. “They’re wonderful,” Briana Warner says, crediting their inventiveness in cooking with seaweed. Based in Hancock, the company harvests wild seaweed from areas certified organic and dries it at low temperature. Sold online and at health food stores, products include bags of dried alaria, dulse, and kelp,“just-shake” sea seasonings, and a “Kelp Krunch” snack, as well as nori sushi sheets.
The reason why these seaweed products bring such a deeply delicious flavor to what’s cooking—like the Erharts’ soup—is umami, the fifth taste. Scientifically speaking, umami only joined the quartet of sour, sweet, salty, and bitter when the tongue’s taste receptor for it was discovered in 2000. It is often described as “savory,” but how it performs its magic with the other tastes is why chefs say it gives dishes “harmony” and “balance.”
Although Japanese cuisine is most often associated with umami, cooks worldwide exploit it. Italians, for example, generously wield umami-rich foods like tomatoes, cheese, cured ham, and porcini.
Seaweed is a star of umami, yet it doesn’t have to occupy center stage. As a bit player in the chorus, it can help bring the whole show to life. “A little goes a long way, in terms of both the flavor and nutrient benefits,” says Kara Ibarguen, a cooking teacher who also works in the R&D kitchen of Maine Coast Sea Vegetables. Her aim, she says, is to “demystify cooking with sea vegetables.”
There could be no one better to tackle this goal. With her approachable style, she gives students easy access to a wealth of culinary knowledge. The Maine native gained this experience during cooking stints from the outdoor kitchens of Madagascar to a brewery in Maui.
Kara has created many of the recipes featured on the web site of Maine Coast Sea Vegetables, including those for seaweed salad (see sidebar), smoked dulse asparagus soup, and Irish moss blanc mange. For that pudding, her friendly voice comes through in the instructions to “use any flavor that tickles you.”
Kara also originated the Good Food Award-winning sesame ginger Kelp Krunch bars, delicious with hints of maple syrup, vanilla, and cayenne. Such snacks (bars, chips, nori sheets, and flakes) are seaweed’s hottest segment, projected to grow 10.8 percent from 2020 to 2027, according to Grand View Research.
To launch a recent Zoom cooking class, Kara conducted a “show and tell” with seaweed she had foraged herself. Wearing a fisherman hat and dangling earrings, she held up samples, large and small, to show species in the brown, red, and green categories. (See sidebar.) In addition to wild harvests, she noted, seaweed is also grown by farmers in the fast-developing aquaculture industry.
Briana Warner has partnered with 24 such farmers from Casco to Penobscot to Cobscook Bays and, in the process, multiplied kelp production at Atlantic Sea Farms 14 times since she became chief executive in August of 2018.
“Good food should do good” is her mantra. She calls seaweed a “virtuous vegetable” because it helps combat climate change. It also gives the Maine fishing community an opportunity to diversify beyond lobster, especially since seaweed is an off-season winter crop. To celebrate the partnership, Atlantic Sea Farms features photos of their farmers on all packaging.
That’s important to consumers. In a survey that probed attitudes toward farmed seaweed, University of Maine researchers found that three benefits topped the list: source of iodine, sustainable, and local.
Mary Ellen Camire, who led the study, amplifies: “People are becoming less trustful of imported food.” More than 95 percent of the seaweed now consumed in the United States is grown overseas, but the trend to “buy local” is strong and gaining momentum in seafood.
With its cold clean waters, Maine now leads the US in seaweed production. However, labor is more expensive here than in Asia and the industry is still young. “Our price point is a little bit higher. We’re doing everything for the first time,” Bri says.
The brown-eyed brunette from Pennsylvania has been emerging as the face of the growing seaweed industry in Maine. In many ways, that is a surprise for someone with a master’s in international affairs from Yale and an eight-year tenure with the US Department of State. But she has a vision and a powerful ability to communicate it.
Just a year ago, she engineered a deal for Atlantic Sea Farms to supply the kelp in a limited-time Sweetgreen bowl created by the celebrated chef David Chang. It debuted in 104 locations—just as COVID-19 began shutting down offices. Still, Bri says, sales exceeded projections by 50 percent.
Although she previously had been focusing on fast-casual restaurants, she quickly pivoted to retail. In what may someday be a Harvard Business School case study, Atlantic Sea Farms is now in 700 stores. In Maine, that includes Whole Foods and an array of natural co-op grocers, listed by ZIP code at “where to buy” on the company web site, where people can also purchase directly.
That “huge shift to retail” is good news for home cooks. Since people have been cooking more at home during the pandemic and experimenting with new recipes, seaweed products are easier to find.
A go-to Atlantic Sea Farms product, great for popping into smoothies, is frozen pureed kelp cubes. The Saco-based company also offers a three-box pack of Ready Cut Kelp, which has been shredded, blanched, and flash-frozen. “Simply thaw and drain,” say the instructions.
In addition, Atlantic Sea Farms created a line of fermented products: seaweed salad, kelp kimchi, and kelp sauerkraut. Last year, the kimchi won a Good Food Award; this year, the other two followed into the winners’ circle.
These products were designed as condiments for rice and vegetable bowls (or the dinner plate). But Bri says, “Just stick a fork in and eat it.” That’s apparently what New York Times food writer Melissa Clark did with a friend when they finished an entire jar in one sitting.
Perhaps because she herself has two little boys (her face lights up when she talks about them), Bri’s finger is on the pulse of the “easy-to-use” crowd. She also emphasizes that Atlantic Sea Farms kelp products do not have any of “those low-tide tastes” but instead “are a lot more like a green bean.”
Ready for this new food frontier? As fans blend kelp cubes into smoothies and crunch on seaweed bars, they may feel among the avant-garde. Just remember that our Maine grandmothers nibbled on dried dulse and thickened their puddings with Irish moss. But that’s another story.
Tips from Kara’s Kitchen
What types of seaweed are native to Maine and how can you use them? Cooking teacher Kara Ibarguen’s tips take advantage of dried products from Maine Coast Sea Vegetables but may inspire new ideas for frozen seaweed, too. The foundation of this list is courtesy of Maine Sea Grant.
Alaria. Sometimes known as winged kelp or Atlantic wakame, this seaweed is the go-to for miso soup and seaweed salad. It has a silky, smooth texture and a mild, nutty flavor. (Kara likes both alaria and sugar kelp in her seaweed salad.)
Bladderwrack. Harvested from the intertidal, this type of brown rockweed can be used fresh or as a dried seasoning. Chop it up and add it when you’re steaming mussels or clams.
Dulse. This purplish-red sea vegetable is tender enough to go directly into dishes without soaking or cooking. When fried crisp, it is a popular snack. In fact, with its hint of bacon, some people call it “vegan jerky,” says Kara, who uses it in grilled cheese sandwiches. Maine Coast Sea Vegetables sells an Applewood-smoked dulse reported to “melt in your mouth.”
Irish Moss. This red seaweed is the source of carrageenan, the thickening agent in foods and products like toothpaste. In the kitchen, substitute Irish moss flakes for gelatin to thicken desserts or gravies, says Kara. Simmered with milk, it makes a “creamy, delicious” sweet pudding. And then how about a little maple syrup or lemon zest?
Laver. If you are a sushi fan, you already know laver, also called nori. It’s thin, strong, and elastic—great for your California rolls. Laver boasts the highest levels of protein among all seaweeds. When toasted in a dry skillet, it can add a “nice nutty taste” to eggs, stir fries, or even popcorn. Kara recently enhanced a creamed corn dish with it.
Sea Lettuce. It’s no surprise this emerald-green seaweed is favored as a garnish and salad ingredient. With its high mineral content and slightly bitter flavor, sea lettuce gives a recipe a nutrient boost and sea flavor, but, as Kara emphasizes, “like most sea vegetables, a little goes a long way.”
Sugar Kelp. “A powerhouse,” this species is the one widely cultivated by commercial sea farmers. It produces a natural sugar which can deliver a sweet flavor to soups, beans, and stir fries. For seaweed salad, soak dried kelp in water for five minutes and then cut into pasta-like noodles. How about seaweed lasagna? Just be sure to use extra sauce because kelp soaks it up, just the way it does ocean nutrients.
Quick Takes from Briana Warner, CEO of Atlantic Sea Farms
As Briana Warner spoke with Maine Women Magazine, she was wearing a mask in the office she shares with other members of Atlantic Sea Farms’ nine-person, year-round team. She suddenly ducked out of the Zoom screen to move the space heater closer to the company’s sustainability manager, who had been winter surfing that morning. She was worried about his toes, still achingly cold.
That simple gesture fits someone who is committed to showing her two sons that “you can actually do well by doing good.”
The theme characterizes her unconventional path to becoming CEO of an aquaculture venture. During college, she was recruited into the foreign service, where she spent eight years, including assignments in Guinea and Libya. After moving to Maine with her husband, she launched a pie company—“pies like your mother never made”—which employed only newly resettled refuges. Then, as economic development director at the Island Institute, she devoted the following four years to lifting Maine’s coastal and island communities to greater prosperity by championing broadband services and aquaculture.
Now, at 36, Bri is approaching her third anniversary as CEO of Saco-based Atlantic Sea Farms. Under her leadership, the company has recruited a network of farmers, established kelp seed production, developed a line of new consumer products, and expanded both food service and retail distribution channels. After a few heart-stopping moments during the pandemic, Bri reports that production is now above pre-COVID levels.
What gets you up every day—other than your two little boys?
It’s the potential that seaweed has to transform our way of eating and supply a supplemental income source for fishermen, while mitigating some of the effects of climate change. It’s hope, right? There’s so much happening now in the world, from the pandemic to climate change. This is the good news story of food.
What are some of the factors in Atlantic Sea Farms’ success?
We have a singular vision and a really kick-ass team. We know what we’re good at and what someone else is better at. Fishermen are better seaweed farmers than any one of us will ever be. So, we haven’t spent countless hours on the water fixing lines.
You don’t have a marine biology degree or an MBA, and your experience is largely in economic development. In what ways has your background helped you?
I see a lot of people in business who let themselves get defeated by things that actually aren’t that big a deal. I have lived in so many places where real problems exist. So, for me to figure out how an 18-wheeler can move around the coast for an affordable pricedoes not feel like an intractable problem.
Do you have advice for other women?
Women often reach out—which is something I think women are very good at. But they almost always start with “I’m sorry to bother you”or “I’m not qualified, but . . .” I respond, “I can’t read beyond your apology. Don’t apologize or doubt yourself because that doubt comes through to everybody. If you don’t believe you can do it, no one else will.”
Do you think the company will expand beyond Maine?
People ask me that. Maine has the cleanest water. We have more coastline than the state of California. We have the most overqualified workforce that I can imagine on the water. I am able to recruit great people because they want to be here. I don’t want to be anywhere else.Ingredients
Maine Seaweed Salad
Recipe by Kara Ibarguen
- A 2-ounce bag Maine Coast Sea Vegetables Kelp
- 3 T Tamari
- 3 T Rice Vinegar
- 2 T Toasted Sesame Oil
- 1 tsp Raw Sugar or sweetener of choice
- 1 tsp White Miso (optional)
- 1 T Sesame Seeds
- 1 T finely chopped Scallions
- Crushed Red Pepper to taste
- Soak the kelp in cool water for about five minutes.
- Cut it into 1/8″-1/4″ strips and set aside.
- The kelp can either be chopped or, if preferred, unfurl the frond, laying it flat on the cutting board.
- Then working with the sheet in the horizontal position, roll the kelp up in a tight tube shape.
- Next slice the rolled-up kelp creating noodles. Coax apart the spirals and set aside.
- Bring a pot of water to a boil. Add the sea vegetables and cook 5 minutes.
- Meanwhile, combine the tamari, vinegar, sesame oil, sugar, and miso in a bowl. Mix well until the sugar is dissolved.
- Toast the sesame seeds slightly in a dry skillet, just until they become aromatic.
- Cool the seaweed in a cold-water bath before combining with the dressing. Sprinkle with sesame seeds, scallions and red pepper flakes before serving.
- Adding spiralized or sliced carrot, cucumber, and/or radishes lends a pleasing crunch to the salad as well. Be creative and enjoy!