Category Archives: seaweed

Pickled Kelp

Recently I camped out with the family at Deception Pass State Park, one of the true gems in Washington State’s park system. While beach combing and fishing for humpies, we came across a six-foot long strand of bull whip kelp (Nereocyctis luetkeana) that had washed ashore. The kelp looked like it was still in good shape (it didn’t have the white splotches characteristic of an over-the-hill specimen), so we bagged it up and took it home.

Healthy kelp forests are the old-growth stands of the ocean. A hundred feet or more in length from sea floor to surface, they support a diversity of life. I’ve seen this diversity first-hand while free-diving in Puget Sound. Lingcod, greenling, and rockfish forage among the kelp forests; sea otters, seals, and other critters seek refuge from predators; and countless invertebrates make their homes there.

Our find immediately put me in mind of Jennifer Hahn and her wonderfully useful and poetic Pacific Feast: A Cook’s Guide to West Coast Foraging and Cuisine. Hahn calls seaweeds the “most nutritious vegetables on Earth”—and the only vegetables that dance: “They jump and jerk to the bass thunder of waves. They shimmy and shake to the ebb and flood tide.” I just knew she would have a good recipe for the kelp. Sure enough, when we got home I thumbed through my copy and found this recipe for pickled kelp.

I’ve eaten plenty of kelp pickles over the years but never actually made  them myself. For this recipe, imagine a typical bread-and-butter pickle, with its crunch and spicy sweetness, and add to it a subtle hint of the sea. After tasting these pickles, you’ll look at a seaweed-strewn beach in a whole new way.

I cut Jennifer’s recipe in half since my strand of kelp was on the small side, and I probably could have cut it in half again.

2 cups kelp rings
1 1/2 cups white vinegar
1 clove garlic, diced
1 1/2 tbsp pickling spice
2 tsp turmeric
1 1/2 cups white sugar
1/2 red onion, cut in crescents

1. Make the brine. Mix vinegar, garlic, spices, and white sugar in a sauce pan. Set aside.
2. Cut the kelp into foot-long sections. Peel each section with a potato peeler.
3. Slice each peeled section into 1/4-inch rings.
4. Add the kelp rings into the brine and set aside for 2 hours, stirring occasionally.
5. After brining for 2 hours, boil contents for 5 minutes.
6. Spoon kelp rings and juice into canning jars and process in hot water bath for 10 minutes.

The pickles cure in three weeks, although we couldn’t wait; after just a week in the jar they tasted darn good and brought back fine memories of a sunny long weekend at the beach.

Note: check state and local regulations before harvesting seaweeds. In Washington it’s only legal to harvest beached bull whip kelp; cutting a living kelp stipe is illegal.

B.C.: It’s not just a comic strip

We made our annual pilgrimage to a friend’s cabin on Thetis Island recently. Thetis is two ferries away from Seattle, in the Gulf Islands of British Columbia off the east coast of Vancouver Island. It’s pretty much an all-day affair to get there, but once you’re there, oh boy is the effort worth it.

We lucked out this year with low tides in the mornings, making clam digging the first order of the day. The butter clams, which apparently hold the toxins of red tide longer than other species, are off limits—even though there hasn’t been a red tide in recent memory—but littlenecks are plentiful and as big as I’ve seen them anywhere.

Bottom fishing is another regular distraction. Flounder, greenling, rockfish, and lingcod all haunt the lower depths. One of the kids even caught a dogfish. In the ensuing melee of trying to land and release it without losing a digit, the little shark thrilled its antagonists by snapping the rod in two with its jaws. Down, Fido!

Besides the usual chowder and oyster po ‘boys, we made a cioppino one night, cooking the catch of the day (flounder, littleneck clams, mussels) in a tomato-wine broth gussied up with chopped fennel bulb and saffron. The other key ingredient wasn’t a food item—it was the camp stove that made the cioppino seem all the more authentic (if I can use a term that normally curdles my appetite).

The kids, or some of them at any rate, experimented with their taste buds and their courage. Steamed sea lettuce drizzled with soy sauce over a bed of couscous wasn’t so bad after all, a few admitted. And a small gill-hooked flounder didn’t even require utensils.

There was one big difference between this year and previous: our young charges eventually tired of clamming and fishing, announcing their desire to go after bigger game. In keeping with the practical tenants of The Three-Martini Playdate, we parents heartily encouraged them during one evening’s cocktail hour, suggesting they cease running around underfoot and fully investigate the woods out back. Next thing we know, a small mob has armed itself with sticks and is in pursuit of the rather tame local squirrels and robins.

The next few days saw steep technological changes—not unlike those occurring over the course of millennia—as the little primates used their enhanced cranial capacity to invent a variety of tools/weapons, including bow-and-arrow and spears with honest-to-god spearpoints. Though the rodents and birds escaped harm this year, we shudder to think what future trips will hold for the hapless critters of Thetis Island.

Rendezvous Recap, Part 3

The biggest surprise of last weekend’s Native Shores Rendezvous was the edibility—make that downright delectability—of the humble barnacle. On Sunday in the vicinity of Lincoln City we collected the biggest specimens we could find attached to California mussels (Mytilus californianus), a foraging twofer. Once boiled, the colonies of barnacles can be peeled off their host shells and the meat extracted with a single chopstick by pushing it through each individual barnacle shell. You hold onto the beak like a popsicle stick and eat the rest. It’s a rich, buttery flavor even without melted butter for dipping.

Of course, not every new foraging experience works out so well. Some wild foods are more appealing than others

In addition to cow parsnip (which I rather enjoyed), during stops at a few different seashore locations we identified several other species of seaweed, including sea cabbage, feather boa kelp, ribbon kelp, iridescent kelp, sea palm, and a poisonous species, Desmarestia ligulata. At a bay to the south we used clam guns to dig mahogany clams (pictured) and ghost shrimp, as mentioned in an earlier post. A marshy area inland provided tender hearts of cat-tail.

Our last stop of the day was at a private residence where we picked the leaves of cat’s ear, oxeye daisy (pictured), and Siberian miner’s lettuce, and munched on the cool and refreshing peeled stalks of salmonberry.

While the previous evening’s feast had been composed almost entirely of foraged foods—and unadorned at that—the Sunday meal was more relaxed. With ample help I made a vat of New England Clam Chowder to get our cream, butter, and bacon quotient back into the red.

The workshop concluded Monday morning with a “weed walk” around the neighborhood, with John identifying all sorts of mostly non-native plants that the average person considers weeds and the forager might consider food. I think I can speak for the two-dozen of us who attended that we were exhausted by the end but also energized by the possibilities for gathering and cooking wild foods. I’ll be attending more Wild Food Adventures in the future.

Rendezvous Recap, Part 2

For Part 1 of the Native Shores Rendezvous Recap, click here.

After collecting goodly amounts of bivalves and seaweeds, it was time to head inland to find plain old weeds (and native greens, too). I’m not sure exactly where we were—somewhere off 101, possibly the Trask River.

We pulled over to the side of the road and stepped into a Japanese knotweed factory. The invasive weed was everywhere. Most of it was too big for our purposes; we wanted the young, leafless shoots to saute and broil like asparagus, although we took a few of the largest stems to scrape for pie filling. I must confess the knotweed was not my favorite edible of the weekend. We found few really short stems, and though I can see how new shoots could be treated like asparagus and grilled or broiled, these were somewhat fibrous.

Nearby was the delicate lady fern (Athyrium filix-femina) and its scrumptious young shoots. These fiddleheads, with their relatively clean scrolls, were a welcome change from the fiddleheads I had been gathering outside Seattle this spring.

When we got all this booty back to the lodge there was still no time to rest. Now we had to process the foraged food and get it ready for cooking. Fortunately the rain let up long enough to do this part outside.

The forager’s feast on Saturday night was just that—a meal made purely with foraged foods and nothing else save salt and pepper. We boiled each round of bivalves—cockles, butter clams, gapers, and a few littlenecks—in the same cauldron of water, then used the broth as the base of a delicious soup that included chopped cockles, seaweeds, fiddleheads, and knotweed spears. There were more steamer clams than anyone knew what to do with. A fresh salad included a few leaves of conventional lettuce and a little red bell pepper and carrot for color but otherwise was composed of seaweeds (both cooked and raw), chopped knotweed, and blanched fiddleheads. The knotweed pies would have to wait until the next night.

Rendezvous Recap, Part 1

Before I launch into my multi-part post on the Native Shores Rendezvous, allow me to plug this event and other Wild Food Adventures led by John Kallas as a worthwhile expense of time and money for a would-be forager. If you’re like me, there’s no substitute for on-site learning from someone who knows the subject. Like mountaineering, fishing, birdwatching, and so on (fill in the blank with your favorite activity), there’s only so much you can learn from books. Identifying shellfish, seaweeds, and plants in their habitat—with real live specimens—is an approach that works.

The Rendezvous commenced Friday evening with a welcome introduction at the “lodge,” a rough-hewn house a block from the beach in Rockaway, Oregon. John gave us some handouts and talked a little bit about what we would be doing for the rest of the weekend. In short: foraging, lots of foraging. After breakfast the next day the two-dozen attendees carpooled a few miles south of Rockaway to our first stop, where we identified and collected edible seaweeds, including Fucus, sea lettuce, and nori (pictured). These we would add later to a soup and also eat raw in a salad. Oh, and btw, the flavor is excellent, if hard to explain, and the texture will appeal to anyone who likes their pasta al dente, with a little snap to it.

Learning about edible seaweeds was one of the main reasons I signed up for the Rendezvous. The info provided by books and the Internet just isn’t enough—for me, at least. Seaweeds are tricky. I needed to have the different species identified for me, and I needed info on processing, cooking, and storing. One of the great things about seaweed is that you can dry it and store it for long periods of time. Reconstituted in water, dried seaweed is nearly identical in flavor and texture to fresh.

On the way back to the parking lot John picked a clump of winter cress, also known as yellow rocket or bittercress (Barbarea vulgaris), which normally would be a desirable edible, but because this particular bunch was growing beside train tracks, he explained, it was out. Train tracks and a swath of land on either side of them are some of the most polluted, chemically-laden areas in the country.

Our next stop, an estuary to the south, was especially productive. Most of us limited on cockles, a species I had never dug for, as well as butter clams and a few giant gapers. Digging in the exposed sand flats produced a few smaller cockles, but the best way to get them was to use our rakes in less than a foot of water. We found a cooperative forager willing to pose for an instructional:

When they’re not underwater, cockles reveal themselves with two tiny holes side by side in the sand, called a “show.” Further out on the flats we found the dime-sized shows of butter clams. Gapers’ shows were even larger. To get the gaper (pictured), you had to dig a trench about two or three feet deep and work toward the big clam without damaging its shell. Although this was true of butter clams as well, I found that digging with my hands was more effective. The gapers are cool looking clams, with huge necks, but they can be tough and they’re hard to process. The butter clams are tastier, although it’s best to rest the clams in a bucket of salt water for 24 hours, periodically aerating the water and keeping it cold, so they expel their sand. The cockles can be sandy too, but since they’re best suited for chowder (being a chewy clam) you can clean out the sand as you steam and chop them into more manageable pieces.

Our forager gave a quick lesson in hunting down butter clams:

While we were digging clams the game warden dropped by. A few things I learned in the friendly exchange: Leaving your shellfish license or driver’s license in the car is a no-no and you will be fined. Collecting clams over the limit with the intention of throwing back the smallest at the end is also a no-no and you will be fined. Joining John on a clam digging expedition means you look honest enough to not bear too much scrutiny—which is lucky, because several in our party had either left licenses behind or were carrying too many clams.

Next: Rendezvous Recap, Parts 2 & 3; spot shrimping from a canoe on Hood Canal.