Is that a sea monster on my plate?
Kim Duke forages for bull kelp off Haida Gwaii and makes a meal her friends won't soon soon forget
The dark clean waves of the Pacific rock our boat off the Haida Gwaii islands near the wild British Columbia coastline. It's July, but you'd never know it. I'm wearing three layers of clothing, a winter hat, waterproof gloves and a jacket as it's cold and rainy when you're miles offshore. My husband and I are fishing for salmon and halibut, but he's just spotted something else I want.
Rob stops the engine, pulls the motor up and reaches far over the side of the boat with a long gaff hook. "Don't fall in!" I yell while I grab his belt. We're about to pull up a bull kelp seaweed – one of the fastest growing plants in the world. And I'm going to make a salad with it.
The bulbous heads of the bull kelp are like a village of floating mermaids. Dark green Rapunzel-like fronds are attached to each bulb and stipe (stem). There are hundreds of them here in this watery forest. I only need one. This particular North American seaweed grows an average of nearly 18 centimetres a day and can grow up to 30 metres in length during the summer season.
Rob cuts the stipe so we will leave the rest of the plant to grow – and then the fun begins. We haul the rubbery yet feathery sea monster with a very long tail into the boat. I cut off the ragged older fronds. All in all, we have almost five metres of bull kelp overflowing out of a huge cooler filled with seawater.
I clap my hands and give him a kiss. He laughs, "You are a crazy woman," but I know he loves this strange forager side of me. The combination of the thrill of discovery and eating something delicious for free speaks to my inner wild cook. Most Canadians don't take advantage of all the tasty and fresh food that is provided for no charge by Mother Nature. My husband knows that wherever we travel, I will be on the lookout for berries by the roadside, edible wild mushrooms, rosehips for tea and jelly, nettles to make soup or any other interesting free and wild food that crosses my path. Why pay $8 a pound for dandelion leaves in a gourmet salad kit from the grocery store when you can pick them from your own pesticide-free backyard?
I'd done my research on seaweed for this trip. I know that no North American seaweeds are toxic and bull kelp has been eaten and used for rope and tools by the Haida First Nations for thousands of years. It is high in protein, fibre and precious trace minerals such as potassium, iodine, magnesium and more.
The catch of my catch? I have to process it today so it doesn't turn into a stinky mess. Seaweed is algae and that means there's a short window for me to make my salad and to dry out the fronds. Every bit of this plant is edible and full of clear, fresh moisture – you'd be happy to find this if you were stranded.
Later, we drag our seaweed monster to our cabin and get quite a few amused looks and raised eyebrows from people in the fishing camp. I start chopping it down to manageable pieces in the drenching rain on the deck outside our front door. This damn salad had better be good.
Once I am settled inside the rustic cabin with a glass of prosecco, I set a large pot of water to boil on the stove. I am ready to tackle this beast. It's easily done. All I need to do is blanch the fronds and stipe for 30 seconds. The colour shifts from a dull moss green to an immediate light, bright green. Then I plunge it into ice-cold water so it stays crunchy and verdant. Plus, this helps it keep in the fridge for a few more days.
I drain the works and begin chopping everything into thin strips – finally, it starts looking like the delicious seaweed salads I've had in my favourite Japanese restaurants. I am secretly hopeful as I try a bite. It has the fresh texture of cucumber and lightly squeaks between my teeth. Delicious.
Our fishing friends from next door will pop over for dinner soon. Rob has roasted our fresh-caught salmon with lemon and garlic, a goodly pot of wild rice waits on the stove and I'm putting the finishing touches on my salad. A little rice vinegar, a drizzle of sesame-oil dressing and soy sauce and toasted sesame seeds sprinkled on top are just the thing.
An hour later, our friends arrive and suspiciously eye my salad – they aren't adventurous eaters and they've just heard Rob tell the tale of how we got it. Danny takes a tiny nibble from the tablespoon of salad on his plate. "Hmm. Weird but good. I can't believe you made this. What's next year's dinner – the Loch Ness monster?"
Thankfully, Rob and I love our superlong salad's clean ocean flavour and crunchy texture; although I must confess, there was simply too much seaweed to use. I didn't make pickles out of the stipe as I ran out of time. But I did haul the stinky remainder in a plastic bag back to Alberta in our boat trailer and added its richness to my garden compost. My husband wasn't too happy with the smelly mess, but I think the Haida would have approved.
Kim Duke lives in Sherwood Park, Alta.