Sample a Sea Vegetable

| May/June 2008

Imagine my surprise when, one night, some friends came to supper and brought dessert—made from seaweed! The gelatin-like confection was made of agar and coconut milk. We found it mildly sweet and surprisingly pleasant. Most people assume all edible seaweeds taste fishy, but they are more complex than that, with flavors ranging from very salty (and, yes, fishy) to delicate or bland.

Seaweeds can be used in desserts, salads, soups, stir-fries, pasta fare and bean dishes, and some even can be eaten as snacks. They are rich in nutrients and contain bioactive compounds that may thwart cancer, fortify the immune system and support the thyroid. So if you’ve bashfully avoided these jewels of the sea, here are a few worth meeting.

Choose Your Type

Seaweeds are large algae (or macroalgae) that live in the oceans, seas and brackish waters. There are three main types: red, brown and green. Not all seaweeds are safe to eat, but the edible species that serve as sea vegetables can bring a rounded, salty flavor to food, adding variety and important nutrients to our diets.

Relish the Reds

Agar (Gelidium spp.). Known also as agar-agar (a Malay term) or Japanese gelatin, this mild-tasting sea vegetable is translucent and almost colorless when you buy the dried strands. (It typically is dried in the sun, which bleaches out the color.) Agar often is used as a natural gelling agent or thickener in jellied desserts, aspics, molds, pies and puddings. Whole dried agar is either boiled to release the gelling agent for thickening, or soaked and chopped into salads, soups and other dishes. You also can sprinkle dried agar flakes onto fruit juice, soup stock or other liquid, simmer a few minutes to dissolve, then cool to thicken or solidify.

Nori (Porphyra spp.). The favorite of sushi lovers, purple-hued nori turns to phosphorescent green when dried and toasted. Nori sheets can be used to fashion sushi rolls or crumbled into soups and chowders. Nori also is sold as powder or flakes that can be sprinkled as a slightly salty seasoning onto grains, mild-flavored vegetables, seafood, tofu or pasta.

Irish moss (Chondrus crispus). A main ingredient in the classic pudding-like dessert known as blancmange, Irish moss has long been a popular food. It is widely used as a source of carrageenan—a natural gelling agent used to thicken and stabilize soups, dairy products, and a host of commercial confectionary products and pharmaceuticals. Irish moss contains more than 60 percent carrageenan. It is available in dried form.

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