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Column: My love affair with … kelp?

CHARITY ROBEY PHOTO Our columnist found this seaweed, made it into chips and fed it to her family.
CHARITY ROBEY PHOTO Our columnist found this seaweed, made it into chips and fed it to her family.

Two years ago I heard that kelp farming might soon come to waters off the East End and a jolt of excitement went through me. I know, I know.

I love to cook with and eat kelp, but finding fresh kelp is tricky. Determined to take slimy matters into my own hands, I stuffed a large plastic bag full of seaweed I found in shallow water on the beach near Bootleggers Alley, took it home, rinsed it carefully, baked half of it into seaweed chips and cooked the rest into a broth. Then I fed it to my nieces.

It tasted pretty great, but as it turns out, it was not kelp.

My family survived my reckless foraging. And thanks to a recent kelp-tasting at Noah’s in Greenport, sponsored by the Cornell Cooperative Extension Marine Program, I recently got a much-needed grounding in the current state of kelp farming, learned a number of new ways to use kelp in cooking, and found out all local seaweed is edible. (Whew!)

Kelp is the most commercially viable local seaweed, a nutritious and versatile vegetable, that contributes to clean waters and a healthy marine ecosystem. But what really gets me excited is the way it tastes. Still here?

Toasted kelp is like a blue-corn-tortilla-chip-of-the-sea. It is full of umami, a taste that is also associated with meat and mushrooms, a great source of iodine and contains no fat. Kelp (also called kombu) is a staple of Japanese cooking.

Kelp farming in New York waters makes sense, especially for oyster or scallop farmers who already work the waters, and whose small businesses would benefit from more diversity in what they raise. Seaweed farming is already a big business in Maine and growing in Connecticut, where one aquatic farmer has figured out how to create a multi-level diversified farm by stringing lines across a patch of deep water, and hanging mussel socks, lantern nets for scallop spat, and kelp. I’m not sure what a mussel sock is, but if stockings for bivalves complements kelp farming, I’m all for it.

Farmed kelp grows in huge brown sheets like flags flapping in an underwater wind. And it grows fast, one to two feet a day. If the romaine in your kitchen garden did that, it would soon cover the house like a Vietnamese lettuce wrap.

Like most seafood, kelp is at its best when it’s fresh out of the water, but high-end restaurants in the New York area scarf up most of the fresh kelp currently grown in Connecticut. For the rest of us, there is dried kelp, usually from Maine, at stores that sell organic or “health” foods.

The kelp-tasting at Noah Schwartz’s Greenport restaurant was a sign that local kelp may soon be readily available, as people who farm the waters, aka aquaculturists, stake out their aquatic plots and start growing. The tasting menu Noah created showcased ways to use fresh kelp that I had never dreamed of.

The eager kelp-tasters gathered in Noah’s back room were an eclectic bunch. One man had made a day-trip to Greenport from Brooklyn, where he works for a start-up that makes seaweed snacks. He was there trying to scout out additional kelp suppliers for their products. Before the official tasting began, he shared samples of his kelp jerky.

It was … chewy.

A man who seemed to be a Hong Kong-based businessman for half the year and an Amagansett-based farmer the rest was there to learn if kelp might be a worthy crop to add to his land-and-sea farm. This possibility was encouraged by his wife and mother-in-law, who grew up in Singapore, eating and cooking with kelp, and who sampled and intelligently critiqued each dish that was brought to our table for tasting.

For the starter, Noah wrapped a tenderized strip of savory kelp around a chunk of seared yellow fin tuna. Definitely a crowd-pleaser. Next up were kelp sushi rolls, and a fantastic kelp noodle salad that combined savory and slippery translucent noodles with spring veggies and tiny sweet tomatoes from Latham’s Farm in Orient.

The Hong Kong mother-in-law told me that one of the wonderful things about Chinese cuisine is its emphasis on the variety of textures in food, for instance, things that are slippery. She was slurping up the glistening kelp noodles as she explained this to me.

The main course was a trio of kelp-dusted Shinnecock sea scallops in a bed of kelp risotto, a dish that my Asian tablemates thought should have been spicier. But dessert, a kelp-enriched chocolate cake with candied kelp garnish vanished like a mussel into its sock.

If I had any misgivings about kelp being snobby food, my kelp-tasting companion set them aside when she confided that her twin boys are addicted to a Japanese snack that is the South Asian equivalent of potato chips; nobody can eat just one. It’s called Tao Kae Noi Crispy Seaweed, a combination of roasted kelp and secret spices.

The next day I went online and ordered six bags, eating one bag a day until I had to reorder.

I’ve decided not to feed my family any more foraged sea vegetables, so I guess the Crispy Seaweed and Kelp Jerky will have to do until the fresh kelp starts to appear in a fish market near me.