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A Garden in the Sea

Mendocino couple introduces Americans to the age-old flavor of seaweed
by Marina Wolf

Eleanor and John Lewallen's cabin near Mendocino is cozy in a cluttered, back-to-the-land sort of way. An ancient gas stove coexists peacefully with a modern wood stove. A prism in the window casts spots of rainbow across the reading alcove, which is lined with thin, sagging shelves of books. But the real clues to the Lewallens' passion rest in the jars that crowd the kitchen counter. Where others might store tea or pasta or spice, the Lewallens keep their seaweed.

I'm not talking your basic nori sheets, either: As the founders of the Mendocino Sea Vegetable Company, the Lewallens make regular use of some 12 or 13 varieties of seaweed, from unprocessed nori to bits of fucus, which look rather like tips of snakes' tongues.

Back in 1980, when the Lewallens began harvesting the sea vegetables and demonstrating them at Mendocino Farmers' Market and simple-living fairs around Northern California, seaweed was still a bit of a hard sell to the squeamish American public. They drove their products, with the labels that Eleanor had drawn by hand, to a route of natural food stores in the Bay Area, and gave samples everywhere they went. As it turns out, these two back-to-the-landers anticipated the rising interest in healthy eating and ethnic cuisine, and are now riding the small but significant wave of public acceptance of seaweed as sustenance.

America's recent discovery of Japanese food may be credited, as millions of sushi lunch boxes have introduced Americans to nori rolls and gomasio sprinkles. But many oceanside cultures have used seaweed in their cookery. In the British isles, nori (or laver) is boiled down to a purée and eaten on toast with bacon. The Native Americans who once trod the same harvesting routes as the Lewallens toasted nori and made it into fry bread. The Lewallens are a bit more eclectic in their use of seaweed, tossing it with everything from salads to beans, but Eleanor prefers it in simple ways, in rice and soup, or to use with seafood dishes to bring out the taste of the ocean. One of the simplest recipes is marinated seaweed, either alone in vinegar or with cucumber pickles in brine. "You should always rehydrate seaweed in water first," she says as she drains a bowl of sea-palm "noodles," saving the soaking water for broth. "You can soak it in vinegar, but it picks up the flavor quickly, and it's too strong for most people."

Eleanor still demonstrates with gentle persuasiveness, though she and her husband no longer travel as much. Eleanor is healing from cancer, aided, she says, by regular ingestion of sea vegetables. John is a bit slower after a bout 10 years ago with Lyme's disease. They pour a lot of energy into environmental work. But their mail-order business is thriving, and their cookbook, Sea Vegetable Gourmet Cookbook and Wildcrafters' Guide, remains in print after 17 years. Local chefs sometimes feature Mendocino Sea Vegetables in their menus, and a steady trickle of visitors joins them at their harvesting sites each season, including chef-students from the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone in St. Helena. "Those students don't really start using it that much, but at least they get the idea that maybe it's food," says John. "And they like to walk on the beach."


One beach the Lewallens favor is near the coastal hamlet of Elk, about a half-hour south of Mendocino, and it is indeed a beautiful place, especially with Eleanor, who remains entranced after all these years. John is more practical, striding ahead and peering intently at the tidescape for signs of seasonal beginnings.

For all the magic of the water, sea vegetable harvesting is an industry like any other wildcrafting venture. Seaweed harvesters must visit their "gardens" regularly, and sometimes at rather odd times of the day-or night-to match the low tides, when more of the seaweed growing territory is exposed and accessible. In the flood of prime harvesting, the Lewallens' network of freelance harvesters, along with their two teenage boys (who are beginning to take a very involved role in the business), will lug carts of seaweed weighing hundreds of pounds up rocky park trails. The haul is then driven that day to the Lewallens' property, where it is sorted, cleaned, and dried in the sun. Mendocino Sea Vegetables harvests and processes at least five tons of seaweed each season, all by hand. There is no other way.

Today is not the day for this heavy work. It is still too early in the season to harvest. But the signs of the new season are there. "See those little brownish flags out there?" John points out to the wash of the low tide. "Those are kombu [a popular flavoring in Japanese rice and soup dishes]. We'll harvest a lot of them. But it's still too early." He is eating pinches of the first fucus tips out of a little plastic bag, and offers a few. They are gelatinous on the inside, a little like aloe vera, with an addictive little crunch.

He turns to the crevices full of water that cut across the tidescape. "Here we have alaria, or wakame." He bends to lift a limp, dull-green frond from a narrow pool, and slices through it with a rusty, hooked blade. Then he crams one end of the wide ribbon of seaweed in his mouth and chews thoughtfully as he walks carefully along the rocky edge. "If all goes well, this whole thing will be full later." He offers me a mouthful off the new end of the wakame frond. Fresh out of the ocean, the stalk is crisp, and the leaf gives in reluctantly to the teeth in a rubbery burst of good green flavor, like kale.

By now, the sun is setting, but there's still enough light to see the first blackish blooms of this year's nori, lying in ruffles across a damp rock. Eleanor carefully pulls off a section, and offers it for a taste. It's nothing like the crispy puffs that she toasted back in the kitchen, and even less like the sheets of toasted nori that wrap around Japanese delicacies. It is the essence of seaweed: mild, cool, with the pervasive flavor of the sea.

Sushi Salad
serves 8
(taken with permission from Sea Vegetable Gourmet Cookbook and Wildcrafter's Guide, by John and Eleanor Lewallen, 1996)
8 c. cooked rice, cooled
3 T. diced green onion
1 T. honey
4 T. soy sauce (or to taste)
2 T. roasted sesame oil
1 t. grated ginger
1 T. sesame seeds (optional)
1 t. rice wine or vinegar
4 to 6 cloves garlic, crushed
1/2 to 1 c. flaked roasted nori
1/4 c. chopped parsley or cilantro, to taste
diced red and green bell peppers, to taste

Combine the above ingredients, adding roasted nori and parsley last, reserving 1/8 cup nori and 1/4 cup green herb for garnish. Adjust ingredients to taste. Serve on a bed of lettuce, garnished with remaining herbs and nori and slices of red and green bell peppers.

Nearly all recipes made from wildcrafted nori call for roasted nori. Roasting tenderizes the otherwise chewy (frankly, tough), single-cell-thick sea vegetable. When roasted, nori can easily be crumbled or broken into small pieces. Roasting gives nori a toasty, delicious odor and flavor.

To roast nori, place the desired amount of dry nori in a skillet, preheated over medium-high heat. During roasting, turn nori gingerly with fingers, continually feeling for crispness, which should happen in thirty seconds to a minute. Remove each piece of nori from the skillet immediately as it becomes crisp and breaks easily. Nori, being very light and delicate, can burn in an instant. If you smell any burning odor, immediately lower the heat and quickly remove roasted pieces. Nori also can be roasted in the oven; again, watch it cloesly as it can burn in an instant (I use this method only when the oven is already hot from previous use). Nori can also be roasted on an auto dashboard on a sunny day, or on a wood heat stove in use. Roasted nori is a crisp, crunchy, mildly salty condiment that can also be munched as a wholesome snack food.

Nori Sushi Ball
Using the above recipe, form rice balls one inch in diameter. Roll the rice balls in crumbled roasted nori, and serve on a platter garnished with parsley.

Roasted Nori Over Rice
Cook rice until done. Sprinkle crumbled roasted nori over the rice. Add any combination of the following: soy sauce, hot sauce, miso, tofu, tomatoes, scallions, avocado, roasted sesame oil, parsley.

For details on the products of the Mendocino Sea Vegetable Company, including the cookbook, by John and Eleanor Lewallen, see their web site at : www.seaweed.net

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