It Came From Beneath the Sea

It's straight out of a child's worst nightmare: salt substitute, tea and even candy made from the slimy, sandy stuff that tangles around your feet at the beach. While any self-respecting kid would stay miles away from such nonsense, the growing availability of sea vegetables means adventurous adults can add distinctly different flavors to their repertoire of healthy dishes.Even meat-and-potato sorts might be familiar with a seaweed called nori, the blackish-green wrapper traditionally used to make sushi. Dried and pressed into sheets, packaged nori is available in most supermarkets, even those carrying no other sea vegetables.Like other seaweeds, nori has a high concentration of nutrients, although the actual amounts for nori are small. One thin sheet, for example, typically provides 8 percent of the daily allowance of vitamin A, 6 percent of vitamin C, 10 calories and no fat.Toasted and crumbled into soup or salad, nori provides a guilt-free and elegant alternative to croutons or bacon bits. Other sea vegetables provide even greater health benefits. The New Laurel's Kitchen (Ten Speed Press) sings the praises of vegetables grown in the mineral-rich seas, including kombu, high in iodine content and used to treat goiter, and laver, high in iron. Some sea vegetables are believed to lower blood cholesterol levels; others are used to treat conditions such as heavy metal poisoning and hypertension. The authors caution, however, that shoppers should choose carefully, avoiding vegetables grown in polluted waters and buying primarily from domestic growers. Like all seafood, sea vegetables have a distinctive flavor and are somewhat of an acquired taste. Wary cooks can test the waters by trading the salt shaker for a mixture made from sea vegetables. Most can be toasted and crushed to use as a salt substitute; nori is lower in sodium than table salt, getting its flavor from potassium.Pre-made commercial substitutes using sea vegetables are also available. Also easily found is sea salt, the remains of evaporated salt water. While not derived from seaweed, it also naturally contains minerals such as iodine. Available in coarse crystals, sea salt can be used in a mill just as peppercorns are, providing a fresher, stronger taste.Another easy trick is the use of agar-agar and carrageen as vegetarian substitutes for gelatin. Packaged in bars, granules or flakes, agar-agar usually comes with directions for jelling, although the concept for both is simple: dissolve in boiling water. Those who prefer to dive right in will find endless uses for easily available seaweed. Sold in dried form, seaweed needs to be soaked in a small amount of water for about 20 minutes before using. After simmering in fresh water, it can be stirred into soup or mixed in with other vegetables. Arame has a delicate, sweet taste, as does hijiki. Kombu comes in thicker strips and has a stronger flavor, while the purplish dulse remains chewy no matter how long it's cooked. Keep a careful eye on prices, as seaweed is not cheap. One to two ounces of kombu, wakame or hijiki, for example, averages between $2 and $3. One kilogram (2.2 pounds) of hijiki costs more than $86. Your investment will last longer stored in an airtight container in a cool, dry place. Handle thin sheets of nori with care, especially if roasting over an open flame; it burns easily. The accompanying recipes, adapted from The New Laurel's Kitchen: A Handbook for Vegetarian Cookery and Nutrition, provide a taste of the open seas right at the dinner table.Hijiki Stir-Fry cup dried hijiki 1 small onion, thinly sliced3 cups thinly sliced hard vegetables (broccoli, carrots, green beans, etc.)2 tablespoons white or yellow miso1 tablespoon honey1 teaspoon fresh ginger, gratedcup waterDash cayenne2 tablespoons oilcup tofu cubes (optional) 1 tablespoon toasted sesame seedsCover hijiki with water and soak for 10 minutes. Meanwhile, chop the vegetables. Mix miso, honey, ginger, water and cayenne together in a cup. Drain and rinse hijiki. Stir-fry sliced vegetables in oil for about 4 minutes, then add hijiki and stir-fry for 1 more minute. Add miso mixture and tofu, if you like. Stir briefly and cover. Steam over reduced heat another 5 minutes, or until vegetables are cooked to taste. Sprinkle with sesame seeds and serve with brown rice. Makes 4 cups.Winter Salad with Arame2 medium potatoes3 cups broccoli florets (and peeled, sliced stems)1 bunch scallions, sliced thin1 to 2 tablespoons olive oil2 tablespoons toasted sesame seeds4 inches fresh ginger, minced teaspoon honey teaspoon salt 3 or more tablespoons vinegar Soak cup dried arame in water to cover. Let stand 15 minutes. Meanwhile, quarter potatoes lengthwise and steam only until tender. Remove peel (optional) and cut into 1/4 inch chunks. Steam broccoli pieces briefly, until just tender. Add scallions, either raw or cooked. Place broccoli, scallions and potatoes in a salad bowl. Combine olive oil, sesame seeds, ginger, honey, salt and vinegar. Drain arame and add to dressing. Pour over the potatoes and broccoli and toss lightly. Taste and adjust vinegar. Serve at room temperature. Serves 4 to 6.

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