Seaweed Foraging

Kelly and I took a trip up to San Francisco over New Years to see relatives. While up there we were lucky enough to attend a seaweed foraging class with ForageSF that took place north of Bodega Bay.

Foraging for seaweed is a lot simpler than my recent, rekindled interest in edible mushrooms. In California there are no poisonous seaweeds, just ones that taste better than others. In this class we focused on Kombu, Laminaria setchellii a California version of the closely related seaweed that the Japanese harvest (Kombu is just the Japanese word for kelp). You can use Kombu in Japanese recipes, as a flavoring in soups and stews, as well as a substitute for Beano.

To conveniently harvest Kombu you need three things:

  • Unpolluted water
  • A rocky beach
  • Ultra-low tide (so called “negative” tide)

You also need to learn to distinguish between “true” Kombu (Laminaria setchellii) and “false” Kombu (Pterygophora californica). [Editors note: I’m not 100% sure of the scientific names in this post so please correct me if I’ve got this wrong] False Kombu looks like a palm frond and is tasteless. They both tend to grow together.

Responsible harvesting means cutting no more than a quarter of the leaf like structure of the Kombu, leaving around an inch at the base of the cut for the kelp to regrow.

Seaweed begins rotting almost immediately after harvesting so you’ll need to start the drying process immediately. Before drying you need to wash the seaweed. Purists do this in the ocean. We didn’t have time for this so we did it at home. The disadvantage is that fresh water will dissolve seaweed so you have to work quickly and start the drying immediately. Drying can be done in the sun, on a dashboard, in a dehydrator or in an oven at the lowest setting. As it was dark and cold by the time we got home we used Kelly’s step mom’s oven.

Our very small Kombu haul dried and ready to use.

You should only harvest what you have space and time to dry within 24 hours after harvesting–the sooner the better. It’s legal in California to harvest up to 10 pounds of seaweed for personal use without a permit but you’ll probably want to harvest considerably less than this as scampering over the rocks, hauling it all back and processing it is exhausting work. It would be easiest to divide duties between a group of people if possible.

Our choice of footwear, loose fitting rubber boots used in construction work, was not up to the task. The best option would probably be a wetsuit. The water is cold, the rocks jagged, and you’ll want to also step around carefully so as not to kill starfish, anemone or one of the many other lifeforms that inhabit the shore.

In addition to Kombu we also encountered Bladderwrack Fucus distichus, the tips of which can be used in salads and a few other seaweeds. We hope to come back in the summer when you can find Nori.

The beach we were at also had enormous mussel beds. If I ever get around to attempting this I’ll blog about it but, from my initial research, mussel harvesting seems simple (leave a comment if you’ve done mussel or other shellfish harvesting). You just need a fishing license, a scale, a bucket and gloves. You’ll also need to check in with the state’s shellfish advisory website or hotline (1-800-553-4133) to avoid biotoxins that can be present in mussels at any time of the year but especially during the summer months. I should note that an unfortunate trend of irresponsible tide pool harvesting got going during the pandemic as reported by the LA Times.

Back to seaweed. Here’s a few resources:

California Native Plant Society article (pdf) on California Seaweeds
Fin + Forage Kelp Identification guide
A guide to brown seaweeds
The sea forager’s guide to the Northern California coast by Kirk Lombard and Leighton Kelly (has a short section on seaweed)
LA Times article on seaweed foraging in Southern California (I’ll note that I’ve heard conflicting information on whether SoCal beaches are too polluted to harvest seaweed)

Master Tinkerer Ray Narkevicius

While I’m sitting on my ass writing this brief blog post, my neighbor Ramutis “Ray” Narkevicius is building something, tending his poultry, making compost, growing hops on the rooftop of a brewery, scavenging materials, grafting a fruit tree or wiring the inside of a Fed Ex cargo jet.

Over the years Ray has turned his yard into a elaborate nutrient loop. Spent grains that he gets from the brewery feed the poultry. Poultry manure nourish fruit trees and the duck water waste hosts crayfish. All the water gets pumped around to a series of raised beds that grow herbs, dragon fruit and strawberries. His small yard overflows with the most delicious citrus you’ve ever had. And he’s a generous and kind neighbor who is always willing to lend a helping hand.

Thankfully, the folks at Fair Companies, including friend of the blog Johnny, of Granola Shotgun, made a video about Ray. One of the cool things about this video is that the footage spans seven years so you get to see how much Ray has done in just that short amount of time. One little takeaway you see in this video is how well citrus does with the liberal application of compost. The other takeaway? It’s time to put this laptop down, head outside, and get to work.

Thomas Pynchon on Pizza

Still from the movie Inherent Vice based on the novel by Thomas Pynchon.

Blog reader BLDinMT left a kind comment responding to my silly post on cooking out of the Café Gratitude cookbook which triggered a memory of a passage in Thomas Pynchon’s novel Vineland. I don’t remember much about the novel but I do remember Pynchon’s spot-on description of 1970s era California health food cooking,

Prairie worked at the Bodhi Dharma Pizza Temple, which a little smugly offered the most wholesome, not to mention the slowest, fast food in the region, a classic example of the California pizza concept at its most misguided. Zoyd was both a certified pizzamaniac and a cheapskate, but not once had he ever hustled Prairie for one nepotistic slice of the Bodhi Dharma product. Its sauce was all but crunchy with fistfuls of herbs only marginally Italian and more appropriate in a cough remedy, the rennetless cheese reminded customers variously of bottled hollandaise or joint compound, and the options were all vegetables rigorously organic, whose high water content saturated, long before it baked through, a stone-ground twelve-grain crust with the lightness and digestibility of a manhole cover.

Pynchon being Pynchon, pizza appears frequently in his novels as a multi-valiant symbol. In Vineland it’s a symbol of the Dharma wheel and the eight-fold path of Buddhism (pizza is usually cut into eight pieces).

Chicken of the Woods 2021

We begin this post with a disclaimer. The very last thing you should do is act on edible mushroom foraging advice from this particular blogger. That said, we enjoyed two delicious meals of chicken of the woods mushrooms this week thanks to friend of the blog Lee. And, yes, it really does have both the taste and texture of chicken.

Back in 2019 Lee alerted us to a secret stash growing on one of LA’s many carob trees. Our 2021 harvest was on another carob tree, this time on Lee’s compound.

In the two years since that first harvest I’ve learned a few things about the edibility of this mushroom. You need to cook the mushroom thoroughly or nausea and vomiting can result. It’s also good to harvest on the young side as the older specimens are tough and can cause stomach upset. You also need to avoid specimens growing on conifers or eucalyptus trees. I’d advise eating a small amount first and seeing how you do. We consumed copious quantities of it with no ill effect.

Recent research has shown that what was once thought of as one species of chicken of the woods in North America is, in fact, a complex of species. Here in the west we have Laetiporus gilbertsonii.

Here’s some good photos showing Laetiporus gilbertsonii at various stages.

Note that should this mushroom show up on one of your trees you’ll want to hire an arborist as this fungus can cause serious structural problems. On the plus side you’ll have many gourmet meals.

To review, eat the young growth, cook well and know the species of tree you’re harvesting from and you should be fine. Chicken of the woods is sort of a gateway to edible mushroom foraging as it’s one of the easiest wild mushrooms to identify. The only problem you’ll have is what to do with the many pounds of delicious bounty that will appear, I guarantee you, when you’ve got other stuff to do.

Eating the Void: On Making a Raw Café Gratitude Chocolate Hazelnut Pie

I have a small collection of odd cookbooks that have, for the most part, gone unused which is probably a good thing. One that’s collected dust for years is I Am Grateful: Recipes and Lifestyle of Café Gratitude. Friends who have been to this oh-so-California restaurant say that’s it’s good while simultaneously a parody of itself. As the intro to the cookbook notes,

The Café Gratitude menu gives you the opportunity to start practicing saying something new and affirming about yourself by simply placing your order. All of the items on our menu have self affirming names like “I am adoring,” “I am loved,” or “I am fulfilled,” which is how we encourage customers to order what they want. Then when the servers bring them their food and drinks, they place them down saying, “You are loved,” or “You are fulfilled”!

Many of the recipes involve hours of dehydrating and the sourcing of more exotic and precious ingredients than Louis XVI ever had access to before the resentful mobs ended his banquets.

The appearance of one of those exotic ingredients (some friends joke gifted me with a package of Irish moss, Chondrus crispus, from the oh-so-San Francisco Rainbow Market) allowed me to make one of the desserts in the I Am Grateful cookbook, the “I Am Bliss” raw vegan chocolate hazelnut pie.

Picking up the remaining ingredients for I Am Bliss proved both expensive and challenging. Naturally, I went to our new oh-so-Los Angeles Erewhan market, which just had a well publicized incident involving a dominatrix leading her client through the store with a dog leash:

Take that San Francisco! But I digress–back to I Am Bliss. In addition to the Irish moss, I needed $1,000 in nuts and lecithin, an ingredient that proved elusive even in the fanciest health food store in the city (they had it in capsule form but I didn’t want to spend $30 on one pie). I took to Google to come up with an alternative and substituted guar gum. I never found any coconut butter and just used coconut flakes ground up in a food processor.

The baking or, rather, non-baking of the pie was quick if tedious. If you’d like to attempt it yourself here’s the compete recipe. To summarize, you grind up nuts with the aforementioned exotic ingredients and some cocoa powder and agave syrup (a.k.a. sugar!) and pour the goop into the crust made out of nuts and dates. The guar gum solidified the filling instantly. Then you make “I Am the Top living meringue” out of more Irish moss, soaked cashews and coconut flakes.

The results? It tasted the way a health food store smells, like some vague mixture of old carob from the bulk bins and seaweed chips. I have a nostalgia for 70s California health food store ambiance so I kinda liked it. Kelly tasted it and made a face. I gifted some vegan friends a slice which both they and their pet parrot rejected.

I will say that I’m happy that the raw food trend seems to have faded in recent years, though of course there’s always an equally silly food trend to take its place such as that all meat diet. The raw diet, the all meat diet, and all their extreme cousins are varying ways of negating the very material act of eating. It reminds me of Slavoj Zizek’s rap about caffeine free diet coke,

We drink Coke – or any drink – for two reasons: for its thirst-quenching or nutritional value, and for its taste. In the case of caffeine-free diet Coke, nutritional value is suspended and the caffeine, as the key ingredient of its taste, is also taken away – all that remains is a pure semblance, an artificial promise of a substance which never materialized. Is it not true that in this sense, in the case of caffeine-free diet Coke, we almost literally ‘drink nothing in the guise of something’? . . . Lacan emphasized how in anorexia, the subject does not simply ‘eat nothing’ – rather, she or he actively wants to eat the Nothingness (the Void) that is itself the ultimate object-cause of desire.

My I Am Bliss pie might better be called I Am the Void.

To be clear I think that we all can benefit from a portion of our diet being raw vegetables. But we also have to acknowledge that our digestives systems have evolved over thousands of years to cooking food. Indeed, there are many foods that don’t release their nutrition unless they are cooked.

In addition to this culinary nihilism, the proprietors of Café Gratitude mix into the recipes what Mark Fisher called “business ontology,” that ever present drive to explain every aspect of our lives in the language of business. A pull quote next the the I Am Bliss recipe enjoins me to “Consider that a leader always apologizes first and takes 100% responsibility. Where in your life can you take the lead?” It turns out that the owners of Café Gratitude call it a “a school of transformation disguised as a cafe” and have, allegedly, forced employees to attend culty Landmark Forum seminars.

During the pandemic I watched several acquaintances go from this new agey/business ontological/wellness world into a deep and dark Qanon hole and they weren’t alone. The phenomenon got dubbed “pastel Qanon.” It revealed the regressive, victim blaming, fat shaming ideology at the heart of some of the groovy wellness/health food world turned out to be not so groovy after all.

Not that there’s a direct pipeline from the I Am Bliss raw vegan chocolate hazelnut pie and believing that a satanic pedophile ring run the world. In fact, the dehydrated crackers in the cookbook are good enough that I’ll keep it around if just for a taste of California culture that’s easier to enjoy than being led around Erewhon on the end of a leash.