Kelp. It’s What’s for Dinner

Last June 2017, a special dinner was held at Noah’s Restaurant in Greenport. On the menu was the first kelp harvest from Cornell Cooperative Extension Marine Program’s Peconic Estuary Seaweed Aquaculture Feasibility Study.

The study, funded in part by Suffolk County and managed by CCE marine botany/habitat restoration educator Stephen Schott, examined the feasibility of growing sugar kelp in the Peconic estuary as an aquaculture product for the East End. Sugar kelp, a brown algae, was chosen for the project because it grows quickly and is one of the most farmed seaweeds around the world.

“As an aquaculture product it would work out really well,” Schott explained. “We have a large community of aquaculture and oyster growers on the East End who don’t do anything for the winter, as far as their product. Kelp could be a winter crop for them, then by April or May, they’d be able to harvest it.”

Asia, Europe and other parts of the world have been harvesting kelp for hundreds of years. Only now is the U.S. beginning to take a closer look at the culinary, health and commercial benefits of this next potential superfood.

Rich in iodine, potassium, magnesium, calcium and iron, as well as antioxidants, amino acids, omega-3 fats and fiber, kelp is also used as an ingredient for a variety of products, everything from keeping ice cream soft to tire manufacturing. Broken down, it creates methane as well as sugars that can be converted to ethanol. Biomass Magazine, a publication that covers the world of biomass power, fuels and chemicals, has proposed creating underwater kelp farms as a source of renewable energy.

On the environmental side, kelp also absorbs excess nutrients and carbon dioxide, improving water quality, a boon for local fisheries and shellfish.

Last year’s dinner at Noah’s was Cornell Cooperative Extension’s opportunity to showcase local kelp as a food source, culinary ingredient and commercial commodity to East End diners.

Two types of sugar kelp were provided for the dinner by Cornell: fresh and dried. Sugar kelp is considered sweeter than other kelps, thus lending itself to any number of recipes and dishes.

“Obviously when you think about kelp, you think of savory and maybe Asian,” said Noah Schwartz, the chef-owner of Noah’s.“I didn’t want to take that flavor profile through the whole menu, so I had to get creative, that was the most challenging part.”

Chef Schwartz’s five-course menu included kelp-wrapped seared yellowfin tuna and kelp sushi rolls. For a third course, he used a commercially sold kelp noodle to make a kelp noodle salad, working Cornell’s fresh kelp into the salad with a miso vinaigrette.

“It came out really good,” Schwartz said. “It had just a touch of heat and a great umami kind of salty factor.”

Chef Noah Schwartz is one of the East End’s most innovative chefs, and works regularly with kelp.

Next up were sea scallops, dusted with dried kelp and cooked in a kelp-powder-infused olive oil, served on risotto. Finally, for dessert, a flourless chocolate cake made with kelp.

“I replaced some of the cocoa powder in the cake with dried kelp powder,” Schwartz explained. “It kept the cake moist and added just a touch of savoriness that everybody enjoyed.”

When asked if he’d consider doing another kelp dinner, Schwartz said, “Definitely, but after experimenting with these recipes we realized there are already a lot of ways to incorporate it into dishes as another ingredient.”

Not to be outdone by Noah’s, this past January, Greenport Harbor Brewery also took up the kelp challenge, making a limited edition kelp beer, with kelp provided by Cornell.

“Our head brewer Pat Alfred thought it would be interesting if there was a salty/sweet kind of aspect to it,” Greenport Harbor Brewing Company co-founder Rich Vandenburgh said. “We started with our Black Duck Porter as the base beer and added more caramelization, adding more sugar to make sure the salinity, or saltiness, wouldn’t be too much.”

The beer was such a success, Greenport Harbor Brewery is already talking about making it again.

“People wanted more, so we’ll revisit it when we get back into the cold months,” Vandenburgh said. “It is part of our aquaculture that we believe so strongly in out here.”

With their kelp study now done, Cornell Cooperative Extension’s Marine Program says the next step is for the U.S. government to update their laws in order to make seaweed aquaculture a commercial possibility.

“Eating seaweed in the U.S. has always been a novelty, limited mostly to sushi,” Schott said. “While it’s becoming more of an accepted practice, we’re well behind the rest of the world when it comes to utilizing this resource. It’s one of those things that you have to work people up to it, like a marketing plan to get people to buy into.”