Is America Finally Ready to Embrace Kelp? These Folks Hope So
Kelp has well-known nutritional and environmental benefits, but is lacking consumer appeal. Kelp farmers like Suzie Flores are working to change that.
"In the water, it's this beautiful sort of bland thing, moving along with the water column, waving," says Suzie Flores, co-founder of Connecticut's Stonington Kelp Co. She's talking about sugar kelp, the only variety of the seaweed that can legally be grown in the state of Connecticut, and, she says, a variety with a slightly sweeter flavor than other kelp currently on the market.
Flores and her husband, Jay Douglas, began their kelp farming company in 2016, and in the intervening years, they have navigated a food scene that hasn't yet fully latched onto their product. "I feel like the chefs are really excited to have the whole raw ingredient," Flores says. "A lot of the ones that I work with are so wildly creative that they don't need me kind of giving them suggestions." But her farmer's market clients, she says, often require some direction when it comes to using the fresh product. As a result, she has become a tour guide by default, instructing her clients and promoting kelp as a nutritious, versatile ingredient.
As far as comestible products go, kelp presents a set of tactical challenges. One tricky element of fresh kelp, 12,000 pounds of which Flores and her husband are set to harvest this year, is that it must be kept cold, meaning that the product has a very short shelf life and can't be transported far without the proper equipment. "The longer that it's out of the water, and the warmer the temperature that it's sitting in, the seaweed will start to protect itself," Flores says. "It emits—for lack of a better word—kind of what would be called a slime." That slime doesn't affect the flavor of kelp but it's visually and texturally unappealing, and it's what Flores seeks to avoid. In order to transport the kelp far (Flores has prospective clients who have reached out from places like New York's Hudson Valley), she would have to invest in a refrigerated truck, and so, for the meantime, her business remains local.
Still, Flores' kelp has been selling well with community members. And, in order to encourage eaters to engage with the product in their homes, she has started developing and publishing her own kelp-centric recipes, which she features on the Stonington Kelp Co. website. Presented with a dearth of recipes using fresh seaweed, Flores began creating and adapting these recipes to help usher in more understanding of her product, and the resulting collection is vast; she has developed recipes for chocolate chip cookies, pesto, compound butter, cucumber and kelp salad, mashed potatoes, and even kelp pasta.
At home, Flores uses kelp in her linguine with clams, and also in her lasagna. "I will use it in place of a noodle, but I won't replace all of the noodles with it," she says. The kelp is layered with noodles, sauce, and cheese, for extra texture—and an added layer of nutrition to boot, since kelp has high concentrations of potassium, B vitamins, and magnesium. Kelp, Flores says, has a consistency that is very similar to cooked pasta. "It winds up behaving a lot like a noodle, which is pretty great."
Kelp has culinary applications that extend far beyond pasta, though. You can dry it out and flake it, turning it into a briny seasoning that suggests the sea (Stonington Kelp Co. also sells its own line of kelp-based seasonings, including a furikake and a kelp sea salt). Should the dried kelp become overwhelming, Flores says, it can be tossed straight into the garden, where it enriches the soil. Making dried kelp at home is easy in a conventional oven: bake it on a sheet tray at a low temperature until the kelp's moisture has evaporated. (Flores recommends baking kelp in 160 to 180 degree-oven for 15 to 20 minutes).
The seaweed can also be used in cocktails. A local Stonington Mexican restaurant has been using Flores' kelp in an infused tequila ("It paired nicely with lime and salt"), and Rhode Island's South County Distillers are considering using the ingredient in one of their gins, which, Flores says, would "add a little bit of a briny flavor." Gray Sail Brewing, a Rhode Island-based brewery, produced a sour beer with Stonington last year, and Groton, Connecticut's Outer Light Brewing Company recently collaborated with them on an oyster stout, which will be released this April. A friend of Flores', Jena Ellenwood, who is an award-winning bartender and cocktail educator, is also experimenting with artisanal kelp cocktails, the likes of which the home bar enthusiast can also attempt.
Flores' hope, of course, is that more people begin to explore seaweed in the kitchen, both for the ingredient's taste and flexibility and for its sustainability: kelp draws carbon and nitrogen from the water, reinforces battered shorelines, and is largely considered one of the most environmentally conscious foods currently available.
For her own part, Flores cooks with kelp for her young children, basing her recipe testing on a more universal palate. At the farmer's markets, she encourages customers to consider the shape of the kelp they're using when integrating it into recipes. Kelp, she says, comes in large blades and can basically be cut down into any applicable size or shape. When cooking it, she advises to "think about the shape … what sort of bite you want to take and how much kelp you would want in that bite." Flores' chocolate chip cookie recipe, for instance, features kelp that has been cut into small, nearly imperceptible pieces, whereas the kelp used in her cucumber and seaweed salad is larger: half-inch by half-inch bite-sized squares.
Ultimately, Flores wants more people to fall in love with kelp the way she has. Before segueing to full-time work as a kelp farmer last year, Flores worked as an executive at an educational publishing company, but a passion for the seaweed has turned her ambitions aquatic. This passion is one she translates through her collection of kelp recipes. Many consumers don't know where to begin with fresh kelp, she says, but she's hoping to change its perceived difficulty, partly by changing its saline reputation. "People are usually very surprised how delicate it tastes," she says. "It definitely has a sweetness to it."