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Books Worth Reading: Regenerative Ocean Farming

I’m not sure how I came to read Eat Like a Fish, except that I had heard of kelp farming and was vaguely curious about it. I grew up in Louisiana and tend to think that seafood is my birthright, but I’ve become uneasily aware that the shrimp, lobster, crabs, and fish that I love so much are not readily sustainable. Bren Smith was a commercial fisherman for much of his life, and the first part of his book is the series of salty stories that made up his life on the ocean. Then he goes on to dismantle any illusion that his former way of life was sustainable. Commercial fishing? Larger more desperate boats chasing smaller, fewer fish.  Read his descriptions of fish and shrimp farms and you’ll have a vivid mental picture of why they contribute to pollution. You also realize that, one way or another, all humankind’s sins on land roll into the ocean eventually. CAFOs and their manure burden, pesticides, fertilizer runoff, plastics, garbage, you name it, it’s headed for the oceans, however indirect the path.

Then Smith goes on to propose a solution, and one that he is actually living out. The farming of kelp and shellfish requires no fertilizers and actually cleans ocean water by filtration, as well as sequestering carbon in surprising amounts. The ocean around a kelp farm  is cleaner and more diverse. Greenwave, an organization that supports ocean farmers, states: “Through a mix of reforestation and regenerative ocean farming, recent studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara found that growing seaweed in 3.8% of federal waters off the California coast could completely neutralize California’s agricultural emissions. According to the World Bank, farming seaweeds in less than 5% of U.S. waters could absorb 10 million tons of nitrogen and 135 million tons of carbon–all with no freshwater or other inputs.” Much more and a nice little diagram of how it works can be found on their website:

Human uses for shellfish are obvious, and I’m all in for any solution that requires me to eat more oysters and scallops. But what about all that kelp? Well, there are a lot of industrial and scientific uses for kelp, but I won’t go into them here because my emphasis is on food. And I’m probably a good test case because I’ve always hated seaweed. Other than sushi nori, which is a rather highly processed form of kelp,  I have never tasted a seaweed product that I would willingly take a second bite of. But as it turns out, kelp is infinitely versatile in the kitchen. I’ve written before about the kelp salsas and other ocean and foraged products made by Barnacle Foods, and all I’ll add here is that the salsas are very tasty indeed, kelp is the main ingredient, and you won’t taste any beachy fishy flavors. They have a few grades of hotness, but I’ve decided that I prefer to get the mild Original and jazz  it up with some chopped chipotles in adobo. The salsa verde is a mild tomatillo-type salsa, although the main ingredient is kelp, and it’s delicious for huevos rancheros verde when liberally strewn with chopped cilantro and jalapeños.

I also have to mention their Bullwhip hot sauce, a mildly hot kelp concoction that has earned its place in my kitchen by adding meaty umami flavors as well as some heat, and I love their furikake. Just love it. It’s the nicest thing that ever happened to an egg salad sandwich, it’s great on simple rice dishes, and on evenings when I’m not very hungry, a slice of sourdough bread toasted, spread generously with homemade olive oil mayonnaise, and heavily snowed with furikake is my current favorite snack.

The most exciting part of regenerative ocean cookery is feeling that the best is yet to come. Top chefs are being exposed to ocean farming products and we don’t know yet what all they’ll come up with. We don’t know what home cooks could come up with if they had access to the product. Recently I used a piece of Pacific kombu to make broth, and then realized that the remaining piece of kelp had no fishy flavor or much taste of any kind and was tough as nails, but when cut into very fine strips it resembled the texture of tree ear fungus. I used it that way cooked into a Chinese dish, as a bouncy rubbery texture food, and it worked fine. People are experimenting with making kelp pasta, or you can buy readymade kelp penne and rotini. You can also get readymade kelp noodles, as distinguished from kelp pasta, which are 100% kelp and, in my opinion, are best used in Asian dishes because of the bouncy, crunchy texture.

Nutritionally, kelp contains lots of fiber both soluble and insoluble, and in addition to other micronutrients is an important source of iodine. The National Thyroid Association keeps warning us that 40% of the world is at least borderline deficient in iodine, and there is kelp waiting to solve the problem for us. It’s also a great fertilizer and I feed a lot of it to my soil and animals.

Currently  I’m looking for a bulk source of kitchen-grade kelp to experiment with, and if I find a good supply, I’ll be reporting on the results. Lactic fermentation seems like a natural use, and no doubt there are scads of other uses waiting to happen. After all, it was only recently that an enterprising couple looked at kelp and thought “Salsa! Hot sauce!”

I have seen articles about growing kelp at home in an aquarium with “seawater” made on the stove, and this is where I draw the line about home food production. Kelp belongs in the ocean, doing its work to keep the oceans going, and I’ll leave it there. Find ethical kelp farmers and support the hell out of them when you find them.


Got Milkweed?

I’ve written before about my efforts to grow milkweed, not just because it’s one of my favorite wild edibles but because I would like to be part of the chain that helps the monarch butterfly survive. Monarch larvae can only survive on milkweed, and so for years I’ve been nursing along milkweed plants as if they were orchids, never eating any myself because I needed them to grow and spread and maybe offer a home for some monarch larvae. This year, six years after this project originally began, I saw adult monarchs fluttering around my blooming milkweed. I ran for my phone but couldn’t get a good picture, so I borrowed the one above.  It remains to be seen whether larvae will make their appearance, but I’m delirious with hope. If you have naturally occurring milkweed in your area, treat it like the resource it is. If you don’t, consider planting some seeds, with the understanding that it may be years before you see blooming plants. Do it for the monarchs, and one day there may be enough for you to eat some too.


Using What You Have X: Double Layers of Vegetables

I’ve been yapping on for ten posts now about using what you have, and it occurs to me that today’s post shouldn’t be a recipe per se, but a series of comments about how I’m incorporating more of what I have into what I eat. So today is practical stuff about making sure you use the veggies and eggs that you grew or bought at the farmer’s market.
I have gorgeous broccoli in the garden right now:

One of the best ways to make sure that broccoli or any other fresh vegetable gets used is to prep it immediately. Cut off the florets, steam for five minutes, cool, and store in the refrigerator in a plastic bag, ready to be added to a dish on short notice. If you plan to use the broccoli stem, peel it, cut the crispy inner pith into matchsticks or other convenient shapes, toss with a bit of lemon juice, and refrigerate for up to 2-3 days. If you don’t prepare the stem ahead of time, you are unlikely actually to use it. I have a pet goat to take care of such utilization emergencies, or you can compost it, so either prep it right away or just dispose of it in an ecologically sound fashion without getting all guilt-ridden. Life is too short to worry about whether you utilized every last fragment  of your vegetable.

Right now I have a lot of eggs handy and use them wherever a protein source is called for. Often I cook the yolks and a few whites into a sort of pancake and then cut it in strips to be added to stirfries, but in this case I didn’t want to bother and just scrambled two eggs and two yolks with some soy sauce and scallions in the wok and put them in a bowl to be added back to the stirfry later. This is much like the way that eggs are added to fried rice, and you can see in the photo above that it is not pretty and uniform but tastes fine.
Next let’s consider the Permaculture Pasta that I wrote about before. If you have some in the freezer, clearly, an Italian or Asian noodle dish can come together almost instantly. But if you don’t, fresh pasta is still a possibility. Today I timed myself from beginning to end making a batch exactly as described in that post but a little bigger, and I had pasta ready to cook in less than an hour. Admittedly, I have my set-up worked out and know all my moves, which saves some time. But my point is that it did not take that long to make enough leafy noodles for four, which for two people means that you have a good meal and another meal to serve a few days later. Also, there’s no need to fool around with tree leaves if you prefer not to. Any mild flavored green leaf is good here, and chard is a wonderful ingredient for making green noodles. Just remove midribs, steam it for five minutes and proceed. If you are wondering what to do with those leafy greens that you bought at the farmers market, this is a good use for them. I often use Lambsquarters to make green pasta.
I won’t say that much about stirfrying because I think most people know how to do it already and I have written about it recently. I will just say that keeping the heat high helps keep the sauce clean in flavor. Don’t lose your nerve and retreat to a simmer. Have everything ready, and then stop for nothing and the cooking part is all over in a few minutes. Your mis en place is more important here than maybe anywhere else in cooking.

This particular stirfry uses lavish amounts of garlic, ginger, and oyster sauce along with a little chile paste as the seasonings, and the only vegetables used are a large amount of steamed broccoli florettes and a small amount of chopped scallion. The “juice” is half a cup of broth with a teaspoon of cornstarch, two teaspoons of sugar or equivalent sweetener, and a tablespoon of rice vinegar. Soy sauce is added as needed during cooking. The eggs were pre-scrambled and ready to add at the end.

A pot of salted water is brought to a boil and the noodles boiled just until barely done, less than a minute in the case of this delicate green fresh dough. Drain the noodles quickly, return to the pot, sprinkle lavishly with soy sauce and at least 2 tablespoons of Asian sesame oil, and toss around a little to keep the noodles from sticking to each other. Set aside, covered. Now quickly, heat your wok  over highest heat, put in some cooking oil of your choice, sauté the chopped garlic and ginger for several seconds until the pieces start to look opaque and the fragrance comes up, add the scallions, chile paste, and oyster sauce, throw in the steamed broccoli florettes, and stirfry for a few minutes until done to your taste. Stir the “juice” quickly because the cornstarch settles to the bottom. Toss in the scrambled eggs and the “juice“ and boil hard for another half a minute until it thickens. Divide the noodles into four bowls, or into two bowls and a container for the refrigerator, put the broccoli mixture on top, drizzle with a little more soy sauce and sesame oil, and relish your double layers of vegetables, triple layers if you count the greens that the hens ate.
For that second meal of noodles later in the week, you can cook a completely different dish to go on top or, if you are lazy or pressed for time or not too hungry, the noodles are delicious just reheated, divided into serving bowls, and drizzled generously with additional sesame oil and soy sauce and some crushed roasted peanuts on top. A generous grating of white pepper is good with this. If you want to drizzle in some chile oil, be my guest. A good grade of roasted sesame oil is essential to a good flavor, and I like the Japanese Kadoya brand best.

Using What You Have IX: Pantry Stuff

Now and then I run into new must-have pantry items, and recently I had a throw-together meal that incorporated several of them, so here are some brief descriptions. I do not accept any advertising, free samples, or other freebies. If it appears on this blog, I paid full price and thought it was worth it.
First, the beans: any black bean from Rancho Gordo is going to be delicious. They are always the current year’s crop so you never heard the problem of beans that cook forever and never get soft.  I like a bit of epazote from the garden cooked in with black beans, and if you have some homemade chicken broth and home-rendered lard, so much the better. Nothing else but salt to taste. Delicious. Rancho Gordo works with some farmers in Oaxaca to give them a good market for the heirloom beans that they grow, and I’m happy to help out on the eating end.

The chilequiles are made with nixtamalized heirloom corn tortillas from Masienda.I can get the tortillas at Whole Foods. Or, if you’re a purist and plan to eat lots of tortillas, you can go to Masienda’s shop and buy heirloom corn, ingredients and instructions to nixtamalize it, and even a mechanical stone grinder that will set you back over $1500. Personally I eat tortillas once every two or three weeks at most, so I keep a packet of their fresh tortillas in the freezer for when the mood strikes.
In making the chilequiles, the tortilla pieces are fried crisp in avocado oil or lard and then turned in a hot pan with chile or salsa. My current pantry pet is salsa from Barnacle Foods made from kelp. No kidding, kelp, and it tastes good and not like seaweed, even though kelp is the main ingredient.

I’m increasingly interested in seaweed and filtering shellfish because they are products that can be ocean-farmed and will clean their area of ocean rather than polluting it further as fish and shrimp farming does. You can read more about this in the entrancing book Eat Like a Fish, which I plan to review soon. But while I recognize this as ecologically sound, I dislike the taste of most seaweed quite a lot. Here, however, is a food based on kelp that I can eat and enjoy.

Finally, I try to keep a bag of Stahlbush Island Farms Crazy Corn in the freezer for special treats. I don’t grow corn because I try not to eat corn too often, but when I do, this mixture of white, yellow, and purple corn is the corn I want. Just stirred over medium-high heat until cooked, with minimal water and a little butter and salt, it completes this brunch extravaganza.

For the fried eggs, a good sprinkle of fleur de sel on top is necessary, in my view.

It probably goes without saying that any two of these dishes would be enough with the fried eggs, maybe even just one extra dish. But I like extravagance at times, perhaps even frequently, and after a meal like this, a light snack in the evening will finish the day. Plus- here is the best part of being an adult- you don’t have to clean your plate. Our foremothers may  have thought that was virtuous, but we have refrigerators for leftovers and no need to eat more than we want.