Probably the most overlooked herbs of all are the marine algae, also known as seaweeds. By expanding your definition of herbs to include these flavorful, nutritious plants, you can give yourself the perfect excuse to walk on the beach. Adventure is as near as the next low tide.
Though many of the peoples who settled America had used sea herbs extensively as a food source in their native lands, they somehow failed to transplant those traditions. Nevertheless, North American beaches offer a wealth of possibilities. If you aren’t familiar with sea plants, a great place to start is with bladderwrack, nori, and the carrageens.
Bladderwrack: a hardy delicacy
Though delicious, bladderwrack (Fucus spp.), also commonly referred to as fucus, labors under an unappetizing name. Rockweed, another common name for this herb, is hardly more appealing. Best think up a snappy alias before trying this one on the family!
Bladderwrack is a prolific, homely alga readily identified by yellow-green, mittenlike bladders on the ends of its fronds that endear it to children, who love to pop them. Incredibly tenacious, it thrives in the harsh upper tidal zone and is accessible at all but the highest points of the tidal cycle.
Accustomed to long, thirsty stretches between tides, this herb stays fresh for several weeks in the refrigerator, ready to lend a suggestion of shrimp to sauces and soups. Drying intensifies bladderwrack’s mock-crustacean tang. It may then be crumbled on salads and baked potatoes or pulverized for use as a seasoning. Dried bladderwrack becomes a natural snack chip when lightly toasted, great with a microbrew or hearty red wine. This is also the seaweed New Englanders spread in clambake pits before heaping on the shellfish, chickens, potatoes, and corn. Steamed slowly under a tarpaulin, the entire feast absorbs a bladderwrack savor.
Protein accounts for 6 to 25 percent of its dried weight, depending on season and location, and it’s also rich in vitamin C and iodine. In the fishing villages of the British Isles, bladderwrack tea was the treatment of choice for obesity. The same tea was taken for goiter, a painful swelling of the thyroid glands now known to be a symptom of iodine deficiency. I enjoy a tea made by steeping 1 tablespoon of the dried herb in one cup of boiling water, or four tablespoons in a pot, for about 10 minutes. After straining the tea, I sometimes flavor it with salt, soy sauce, lemon juice, hot pepper sauce, malt vinegar, or my favorite—seafood cocktail sauce.
Irish tradition considers the jelly contained in the bladders a remedy for corns, while Canada’s Nootka apply it to cuts and scrapes. Modern science has found that bladderwrack extracts reduce plasma cholesterol in rats, fight blood clotting, and may relieve radiation poisoning. In Russia, fucoids are being investigated as a treatment for sclerosis.
Health-food stores often carry bladderwrack. On the shore it’s hard to miss. Bring a pair of kitchen shears and snip fronds from several plants, leaving holdfasts and remaining fronds intact. This minimizes the muck and nontarget marine life you take home. Because bladderwrack generally blankets sea walls, pilings, and rocks, you can gather quite a bit of it with minimal impact to the community. Try some on your next trip to the beach. Dried, this unusual herb brings a taste of summer’s leisure to the darker months. Those who get past the name and appearance will soon come to appreciate this herb.
Iridescent purple nori (Porphyra spp.) is prettier than bladderwrack, and you don’t have to invent a more appealing name for it. Both nori and Porphyra sound elegant enough to name a daughter after it. This sea herb is widely known and respected.
Nori thrives in the middle and lower tidal zones, often attached by its tiny stipe to large boulders. Some varieties hang from the rocks at low tide like jabots on a silk blouse. Others spread their scalloped edges over the beach cobbles. Still others prefer to colonize larger algae occurring in the same zone. Nori is an annual, so gather carefully and leave adequate seed stock.
In Britain, nori, referred to as laver, is a seasoning for sauces and soups. A dispute rages between the English and Welsh over who invented laverbread, a fried, oatmeal-coated snack popular on Britain’s west coast. The Irish press their laver into a gelatinous mass, which is then sliced and sautéed in butter. The Japanese have cultivated nori on bamboo rafts since 1670, towing the floating gardens into brackish water as the crop matures. The dark, paper-thin sheets of dried herb are considered a staple and are used to roll sushi in.
Recent decades have seen the growth of a small but healthy nori industry in the United States. Ironically, nearly all top-grade American nori is shipped overseas. The remainder is processed into pet food and other products, while ethnic groceries and health-food stores here import their nori from Asia.
As a source of nutrition, nori packs a protein wallop, with estimates running from 25 to 35 percent of its dried weight. It also boasts about one and a half times as much vitamin C as oranges. Though an important source of dietary salt among the native peoples of the Northwest, New Zealand’s Maori find dried nori allays thirst. Maori regiments serving in the Middle East during World War II requested and received regular rations of the herb for this purpose.
Fresh nori may last a week in the refrigerator if unwashed. It can be chopped and added to soups and sauces or lightly sautéed in peanut oil with garlic and soy sauce and served over steamed rice. Campers like to toast freshly gathered nori over a campfire’s dying coals and munch the crispy herb with the day’s last cup of tea. It may also be flaked for use as a condiment. Raw nori is unpleasantly chewy and fishy, but its deep, jewel purple color lends depth to salads when chopped fine and used judiciously.
Carrageens: centuries of use
Six centuries ago housewives in the Irish village of Carragheen discovered a useful jelly in Irish moss (Chondrus crispus), and the low-growing alga has been widely used ever since. The odorless, flavorless jelly, called carrageenan, is widely used as an emulsifier, emollient, and demulcent. A quick inspection of the products in your own kitchen cabinets will probably reveal that you’ve enjoyed carrageen sea herbs many times without realizing it. Carrageenan is of special interest to vegetarians and dieters, since it gives food body and texture without adding animal protein or fat. Because about 94 percent of this gelatin passes through the body undigested, diabetics and those with allergies also find it useful.
Irish moss, found mostly along the East Coast, is olive or maroon and has a stiff texture reminiscent of plastic flowers. It frequently carpets whole shorelines and may be gathered like bladderwrack by clipping sprigs at random so that no impact is made on the littoral community. Irish moss also is available in health-food stores in dried whole or powdered form. It even shows up in supermarkets from time to time.
Another group of carrageen sea herbs, of the genus Gigartina, is common in North America and can be used in Irish moss recipes. A number of Gigartina species are found along various stretches of the east and west coastlines. The one that’s most common in my area is readily identified by fleshy bristles or nubs studding its rubbery maroon blades, giving it the appearance of balding terry cloth; one common name is Turkish towel.
Carrageenan is very easy to make at home. Simply stuff a cheesecloth bag with finely chopped carrageen algae and simmer in milk, stock, or fresh water for about 30 minutes. Stir frequently, pressing the bag against the side of the pan to squeeze out the jelly. Cool and use in cooking, cosmetics, or medicinal preparations. Chopped carrageens can also be added to soups to add color and body; their strong, unpleasant flavor when raw quickly dissipates with cooking.
Until recently Irish mothers gave sniffling children homemade carrageenan, and some Irish-American bartenders reportedly still offer a cocktail of Irish moss and whiskey to patrons complaining of a sore throat. (See Carrageenan Cough Syrup for an easy recipe you can make at home.) Irish folklore also recommends carrageenan against pulmonary diseases and digestive disorders such as diarrhea and dysentery. More recently, British and French doctors have found it effective in treating stomach ulcers. Hypoallergenic and cruelty-free cosmetics frequently contain this remarkable gelatin, as do hundreds of mainstream products from honey to air fresheners to pharmaceuticals. The high demand for carrageenan supports an important Irish-moss industry in Europe, New England, and the Canadian Maritimes.
Gathering sea plants can be fun and productive if you follow a few guidelines. Algae are not affected by red tide and are less prone to chemical contamination than shellfish, but avoid picking from beaches that are obviously polluted. Shake collected plants in a bucket of sea water to free the tiny creatures you will inevitably trap, and pour the water back on the beach. Then keep the sea herbs cool and moist in a plastic bag. Never store or transport them in sea water, as this promotes decay. When you are ready to use the seaweeds, wash the herbs thoroughly to remove grit trapped in their protective mucilage by floating the plants in a basin of cold water and rubbing them vigorously between your fingers. Repeat at least twice. Don’t wash them before you’re ready to use them, as contact with fresh water leads to rapid disintegration. Clean sea herbs may be dried in a warm oven, food dehydrator, or on a clothesline in a sunny spot. Stored in an airtight container, dried sea plants will keep their flavor as long as any herbs.
Some sources suggest people on a low-sodium diet should be wary of the seaweeds, which are naturally high in salt. Consult your health-care provider before trying seaweeds if you have a sodium-related condition.
Robert Henderson is a writer in Olympia, Washington, who combines an interest in history, folklore, and research. He has spent many hours scouring the shores of Puget Sound.