Saturday, May 23, 2009

Kelp Pickles

Summer, 2008. I was in Seattle, pursuing graduate studies in nutrition at Bastyr University. One of my instructors, a Nutritionist and Natural Foods Chef, was organizing a “seaweed harvesting excursion” in the San Juan Islands. I had seen signs posted for the trip throughout campus. The prospect of going on this trip intrigued me. My only formal interaction with seaweed up until this point was on the New Jersey shore as a kid. Throwing it at my sisters, draping it on the top of my head, under my armpits. I had never “harvested” seaweed. In fact, I wasn’t sure what harvesting seaweed meant. I talked to some schoolmates who had gone on the trip the previous year. Their experiences were more than favorable, so I signed up.

Sixteen of us converged on Lopez Island in Spencer Spit State Park, one of 2 campgrounds on the island, on a Friday evening in late July.

On Saturday, we were slated to kayak to an ancient kelp bed and harvest bull-whip kelp. Bullwhip kelp is olive green in color. It is made up of a round, hollow bulb, from which ribbon-like fronds emerge. The bulb is filled with carbon monoxide for flotation which enables the fronds to float close to the surface and receive adequate sunlight. Attached to the bulb is a hollow “stipe,” or stalk, about 100 feet long. There is a root-like structure or “holdfast” on the lower end of the stipe which attaches to a rock on the bottom of the sea floor.

We showed up at the kayak shop and got outfitted with paddles, dry skirts, and life jackets, got seated and comfortable in our 2-person kayaks and off we went out into the bay towards the ancient kelp bed. Kelp beds or “forests” often accumulate in areas of fast currents usually in channels between islands. Apparently, this particular kelp bed has existed for hundreds of years.
When we arrived in the kelp bed, I remember feeling an overwhelming sense of calm and equilibrium. As I reflect back on this experience, I believe it’s one of the most peaceful spaces I’ve been in my life.

After our moment of silence with the kelp bed, we all began harvesting. The focus of our harvesting was sustainability. Harvesting kelp sustainably involves leaving part of the stipe and holdfast in tact so that the kelp can regenerate. Industrialized seaweed harvesting is usually unsustainable because machines detach the holdfasts from the rocky sea floor making it impossible for the kelp to regenerate.

For those who have never harvested kelp, the process is pretty simple. All you need is a large plastic trash bag and a pocket knife. The process went something like this. First, I lifted the fronds out of the water and placed them in the plastic bag. They were heavy and slippery. Next, I lifted about 4-5 feet of the stipe out of the water and detached this portion with my pocket knife. A popping sound emerged as the gas was released from the hollow tube. Hearing that sound was emotionally gratifying, I felt like a kid again.

After harvesting our kelp, we returned to camp and what ensued was a massive seaweed processing orgy. Kelp fronds were slung over a clothing line creating a seaweed curtain at the entrance to the campsite. Large plastic cutting boards covered the wooden picnic tables. Kelp stipes were being prepped for pickling and various shapes and sizes emerged: o-rings, spears, diagonal slices, and cubes. Pickling brine was bubbling on the camp stove, aromas of onion, garlic, cardamom and coriander infused the campsite. We all waited urgently while the brine stewed. Finally, the chopped stipe and hot aromatic brine were married in some 40 odd mason jars.

I had never heard of, seen or ingested a kelp pickle prior to this trip. Within 1-week of being back in Seattle, I cracked open the kelp pickle jars. It was heaven. Crunchy, sweet, nutritional heaven. They were a meal unto themselves. I felt solidly nourished every time I ate one. They paired well with almost everything I ate: sandwiches, burgers, salads, cheeses, and eggs. I shared my pickles with friends, family, co-workers and classmates. The response was overwhelmingly positive. The kelp pickle did not offend a soul; rather, it inspired interest, enthusiasm, and determination to eat more seaweed.

Below is the pickling recipe that we used on Lopez. It is a recipe by seaweed enthusiast Jennifer Hahn and has been modified slightly.

Horn Tootin' Kelp Pickles

Prepping the kelp:
Cut bull whip kelp stipe ("stipe" is the correct name for the sea algae's stalk) into 1-foot sections.

Cut stipe into 1/8-inch-wide o-rings or 3-inch spears
Place spears or o-rings of kelp in pint or quart wide-mouth glass jars.

Preparing the brine:
3 cups white vinegar
2 fresh garlic cloves, diced
3 tablespoons pickling spice
4 teaspoons turmeric
3 cups sugar
1 red onion, cut into crescents

Combine all ingredients in a large stock pot, bring to boil. Simmer for 45 minutes. Pour into glass jars over kelp spears or o-rings.

**Note: The seaweed trip will run this summer July 24-26, 2009. Contact Jennifer Adler at for more information.

1 comment:

Jo-Jo said...

I like, I like. Can't wait to taste a new batch!