by Beth Young
People have been farming the seas all over the world for centuries, but on the East End, aquaculture is something of a new venture. Farmed oysters have just begun to develop as a major industry here, researchers are examining how to farm scallops, and now, seaweed could be the next thing on bay farmers’ plates.
Cornell Cooperative Extension of Suffolk County began last year on a pilot project to grow Saccharina latissima, also known as sugar kelp, on Suffolk County aquaculture leases throughout the Peconic Estuary.
Sugar kelp is in demand as a gourmet food whose uses are just beginning to be explored, and chef Noah Schwartz of Noah’s in Greenport, known for his innovative use of fresh, local ingredients, was the first to take the plunge into cooking with kelp, hosting a kelp dinner on June 23. prepared with CCE’s first harvest.
CCE researchers showed their work to representatives of Suffolk County’s economic development agencies at CCE’s Suffolk County Marine Environmental Learning Center at Cedar Beach in Southold June 8.
Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone and North Fork legislator Al Krupski helped to pull the kelp out from the Peconic Bay and bring it in to the lab to be examined. Mr. Krupski, a farmer, albeit on land, dared to taste the kelp straight out of the bay, tough and salty, while Mr. Bellone watched the legislator for signs of bodily harm that never emerged.
Sugar kelp is a cold-water species, which grows on rocky hard substrates like those found in the Long Island Sound and Gardiner’s Bay, said CCE habitat restoration educator Kim Manzo.
This particular species is used in cooking, but other, warmer water species, are used for bioextraction of nitrogen for use as fertilizer, she added.
The researchers quickly brought some kelp over to Noah’s for culinary experimentation, but when it arrived on a Friday afternoon just before a busy weekend, Mr. Schwartz didn’t have a chance to experiment with it right away. He began working with dried kelp, and took delivery of a batch of fresh kelp straight out of the Peconic Estuary in time for the June 23 dinner.
He began his experiments in mid- June, grinding kelp to a powder to encrust seared sea scallops, blending it in to a simmering risotto, using it as a nori replacement for tuna rolls with togarashi spice and even candying strands of kelp for a garnish for rich chocolate cupcakes.
Mr. Schwartz got involved in the project because artist Kara Hoblin, who designs his chalkboard menus, is very involved with raising awareness about Cornell Cooperative Extension’s marine program.
“I’m creative, so even it’s not something I’ve worked with before, I’m up for the challenge,” said Mr. Schwartz as he prepared for the dinner June 23. “I see it as like an Iron Chef battle.”
Ms. Hoblin has organized a pop-up traveling art show “Sea Something, Say Something,” as a fundraiser for CCE, which got its start in May at Borghese Vineyards. Pieces from that show came to Noah’s for the dinner, along with Borghese’s For the Bay Rosé, which was paired with the experimental dishes.
Ms. Manzo, the habitat restoration specialist from CEE, said Greenport Harbor Brewing Company is also interested in experimenting with a kelp-flavored beer.
“There’s so much interest locally and they can’t keep up the demand,” she said. “Baymen are aware of that.”
Spores from the kelp were collected from their native Long Island Sound and brought to the University of Connecticut, where they were seeded onto strings placed at six locations from Flanders Bay to Orient to see if they could be grown in the Peconics, said CCE Marine Program Director Chris Pickerell.
“It’s been encouraging so far. Not amazing, but we didn’t lose any,” he said.
CCE Habitat Restoration Specialist Steve Schott, a marine botanist, has been overseeing the kelp program.
Mr. Schott said researchers have found that sugar kelp likes to be in moving water, and will likely do better commercially in the outer reaches of the Peconic Estuary, closer to Gardiner’s Bay.
While sugar kelp is a cold-water species, it grows in the winter, so Mr. Schott said warm summer temperatures in the Peconic Estuary might not be a detriment to farming it here.
“Long Island is the southern geological boundary of this species, but its main grow period is December through May,” he said. “It could grow for a six-month period and reach its maximum growth to be harvested before other things begin to grow on it.”
Mr. Schott said the plant is also sold as “baby kelp” at about half its full-grown size, when the stems are often pickled and sold as kelp pickles.
Meanwhile, Noah Schwartz is still experimenting with the kelp and trying to figure out how to incorporate it into his menu.
“We’ll see how it goes over,” he said. “We’re still working on some sushi rolls. I’ve never put sushi on the menu. Having a better handle on the ingredient will let me use it in different ways. I did a powdered kelp seasoning, and I can use that in a lot of ways, so it definitely inspires different ideas.”