Kara Ibarguen teaches cooking with sea vegetables classes at Maine Coast Sea Vegetables on Washington Junction Road. ELLSWORTH AMERICAN PHOTOS BY ANNE BERLEANT

Seaweed cuisine: Shake up your meals with Maine marine vegetables



HANCOCK — Hearty lasagna roulade. A classic Caprese salad. Rich Italian chocolate gelato. A spicy Bloody Mary.

This simple yet gourmet menu — like dozens if not hundreds of recipes — can be enhanced in flavor and nutrition by one simple ingredient.

Seaweed.

“I’ve always had an interest in cooking and I’m a curious eater. So, it was a natural fit,” said Maine Coast Sea Vegetables’ cooking instructor Kara Ibarguen. She also is the Hancock company’s kelp crunch baker and wearer of many other hats.

She was prepping the kitchen at the Washington Junction Road production facility for the evening’s class held through RSU 24 Adult Education. It was the first of two classes where six fledgling seaweed chefs would create an Italian Valentine’s Day dinner.

At one time, Ibarguen sold her fresh farm eggs to the Maine Coast Sea Vegetables staff and brought home 50-sheet packs of nori for sushi-making. Before she knew it, she was hired as the relief Kelp Krunch ™ baker.

“I was a completely blown away by how many varieties [of seaweed] there are,” she said. “I just thought seaweed was seaweed.”

While the company no longer carries nori, the seaweed and seaweed products it does produce are mainly from local harvests of sea vegetables, not shipped in from Japan, long the mainstay of seaweed products.

Founded 51 years ago by Shep and Linnette Erhart in their farmhouse kitchen, Maine Sea Coast Vegetables is now employee-owned and managed by the founders’ daughter Seraphina Erhart. The idea to produce seaweed-related products sprang from the back-to-land movement of the 1970s. At the time, Seraphina said, her father saw a niche catering to the emerging macrobiotic diet boom.

“He knew people were spending a lot of money on imported Asian seaweed, when there was so much on the coast of Maine,” Seraphina said.

And while she described Shep as a classic visionary who never focused on how popular seaweed would or could become, he was able to build the business up in “the classic Maine bootstrap, one step at a time” manner over the past five decades, she noted.

Now, seaweed is more popular than ever.

“I don’t think I ever thought it would be mainstream until 10 years ago,” Seraphina noted. “This business was way ahead of the curve.”

Seaweed — in the form of dulse, kelp, laver, alaria and sea lettuce, for a start — is used as a seasoning and addition to salads, soups, casseroles and, well, nearly everything. High in minerals, low in sodium despite its salty properties, and with substantial amounts of protein and fiber (depending on the variety), seaweeds also add subtle flavors to foods.

“They add density, and layers of flavor,” Ibarguen noted.

Sneak some ground seaweed powder into smoothies. Add some dulse flakes to mac ’n cheese. Ibarguen said younger palates seem more open to trying the edible sea veg. She has done educational cooking using seaweeds with local RSU 24 schoolchildren and for an online cooking class for Schoodic Arts for All, and Ellsworth Adult Education.

Culinary students learn the ins and outs of sea vegetables while creating an Italian Valentine’s dinner at Maine Coast Sea Vegetables. PHOTO COURTESY OF KARA IBARGUEN

“Many kids will try and impress their friends with their bravery,” Ibarguen said. “And kids are the easiest sell because they have no preconceived ideas. They’re usually the reason parents will try it.”

Sea Seasonings® Shakers also are a great way to reduce the amount of salt in recipes because of its natural iodine content and flavors.

When Ibarguen holds her cooking classes, which she started in 2016, everyone gathers around the large block-style counter in the middle of the kitchen and begins there. When the meal is done, the class sits down at a dining table for a family-style meal.

And she wears many hats at the facility beyond cooking instructor. Now chief kelp crunch baker, she also does research and development for new products, educational and other outreach, customer service and is active on the Maine Nutrition Council. She’ll be holding a workshop, too, at the New England Aquaculture conference and expo in Portland this April.

“Kara’s a great example of what a small business in this hiring environment has to do,” Seraphina noted. “We’re all doing many things and keeping it going.”

Also in April, Ibarguen will lead a series of two classes through RSU 24 Adult Education titled “Spring Greek Seaweed Fest.” Held at Maine Coat Sea Vegetables’ facility, visit RSU 24 Adult Ed for more information on the class and seaveg.com for recipes and more on the seaweed and seaweed products at Maine Coast Sea Vegetables.

Tips from Kara’s Kitchen

What kind of seaweed is found in Maine? The following list provides a nutshell description of a few.

Alaria

Sometimes known as winged kelp or Atlantic wakame, this seaweed goes into miso soup and seaweed salad. It has a silky, smooth texture and a mild, nutty flavor.

Bladderwrack

Harvested from the intertidal zone, this type of brown rockweed can be used fresh or as a dried seasoning. Chop it up and add it when steaming mussels or clams.

Dulse

This purplish-red sea vegetable is tender enough to go directly into dishes without soaking or cooking. Some people call it “vegan jerky” and tuck it into grilled cheese sandwiches.

Irish Moss

This red seaweed is the source of carrageenan, the thickening agent in foods and products like toothpaste. Use Irish moss flakes as a substitute for gelatin to thicken desserts or gravies.

Sea Lettuce

This emerald-green seaweed is favored as a garnish and salad ingredient.

Sugar Kelp

“A powerhouse,” this species produces a natural sugar which can add sweetness to soups, beans and stir fries.

 

Correction: Products producted by Maine Coast Sea Vegetables are made mainly from local harvest. 

Anne Berleant

Anne Berleant

Reporter at The Ellsworth American
News Reporter Anne Berleant covers news and features in Ellsworth, Mariaville, Otis, Amherst, Aurora, Great Pond and Osborn. When not reporting, find her hiking local trails, reading or watching professional tennis. Email her at [email protected]

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