Having kids reacquaints you with that childhood pleasure: Jell-O. Peach was my favorite flavor, which my mother dutifully prepared on days I was home sick from school. I would drink Jell-O juice straight, hot from a mug, too impatient to wait hours for the treat to congeal. Now my preschooler Theo has the Jell-O bug, but with all the added dyes and sugars, not to mention gelatin extracted from industrial meat sources, the stuff has come to offend my farm-to-table sensibilities.
Still, I’ve continued to use Knox unflavored gelatin to set my beloved creamy go-to dessert, panna cotta. Recently, though, I learned something new and very cool – an old Maine D.I.Y. tradition of using seaweed in place of gelatin. It seems I could go to the beach, gather Irish moss and make my own gelatin facsimile.
Hiroko Meserve, an epidemiologist and mother of three who lives in Brunswick, is way ahead of me. She regularly incorporates seaweed into her family’s meals, in everything from salads to desserts. She’s from Japan, where seaweed is a dietary staple, so no surprise she’s learning to embrace Maine’s abundant sea vegetables. On a boat ride to the crystal clear waters around Damariscove Island last summer, she harvested kombu, a brown kelp that Japanese steep into dashi, the broth used to make miso soup and many other Japanese dishes. Meserve nibbled it raw.
For desserts, Meserve uses agar-agar powder or strips derived from willowy red algaes similar to Maine’s ubiquitous seaweed, Irish moss. Meserve buys imported agar-agar at Portland’s Asian markets to gel fresh grapefruit juice or a Japanese red bean paste jelly dessert called yokan.
In Japan, Irish moss is mostly used to garnish sashimi, she said. But Maine old-timers once collected it from beaches and boiled it to thicken such desserts as the now-old-fashioned milk pudding, blanc mange.
I’d already known of Irish moss as the source of carrageenan, a binder used in many household products, from toothpaste to ice cream. Now I’ve learned that even just a generation or two ago, women used to rinse the red seaweed in fresh water and hang it outside to dry until the sun bleached it white and removed any fishy flavors. Their natural method of extraction seems preferable to the industrial processing of the seaweed into carrageenan, a refined food additive that’s increasingly implicated as an allergen. (Vegan and Paleo websites list avoiding commercial carrageenan as a reason to make your own nut and coconut milks.)
That’s a controversy for someone else to explore. I’m interested in the food memories. And surface they did at an edible seaweed cooking class I enjoyed in late February in Falmouth.
Several of the baby boomers in the class regaled us with tales of Irish moss blanc mange. Leigh Mundhenk, of Falmouth, told us she grew up knowing the sweet well, a standby of early 20th century cookbooks, such as Fanny Farmer’s “The Boston Cooking-School Cook Book.” The 1918 edition includes a recipe for vanilla Irish Moss Blanc-Mange, plus a chocolate variation; revised editions thicken the pudding with cornstarch. Waldoboro resident Ellie Libby, who also attended the seaweed class, likewise recalled the wiggly dessert and described how her grandmother would make it from Irish moss that washed up on Bar Harbor beaches after storms.
It’s too early to harvest Irish moss myself. The stuff thrives in bushy piles in protected pools and on rocks in Maine’s upper intertidal zones, the same habitats where the dulse and laver grow. Seraphina Erhart of Maine Coast Sea Vegetables in Franklin said such seaweeds are still microscopic at this time of year – or they were scraped off rocks by ice floes in the harsh winter.
Fortunately, both Maine Coast Sea Vegetables and VitaminSea, the latter based in Buxton, sell dried Irish moss on their websites.
VitaminSea’s Kelly Roth told me that Maine’s craft brewers routinely add a pinch of the dried seaweed to clarify their beers. And she herself once made a layered Irish moss blanc-mange custard from a recipe she found in the “Irish Seaweed Kitchen” cookbook. “It’s pretty much our bible,” said Roth, whose 11-year-old daughter, Lizzy, prefers her popcorn dusted with dulse flakes. “A lot of people don’t know how to use seaweed in their cooking.”
Roth said the cookbook demonstrates how to incorporate seaweed into everyday cooking – for instance, adding dulse to mashed potatoes and braising pot roast with kombu. And much as I favor the flavors of Asian cuisine, I intend to remember that seaweed isn’t just for wrapping sushi rolls or for seaweed salads. I’ve made a small start by adding kelp to my son Theo’s daily green smoothies (when I remember).
And then there’s dessert. I envisioned panna cotta, gelled with seaweed instead of gelatin, as a lovely, light conclusion to next weekend’s Passover and Easter dinners. Since I couldn’t find Irish moss at the Morning Glory Natural Foods store in Brunswick where I shop, I bought Eden Foods agar-agar flakes from Japan, like those Hiroko Meserve uses. If you substitute almond or rice milk for the ordinary milk called for in the coconut panna cotta recipe here, it would be an ideal footnote to your Passover brisket, honoring the kosher tradition of separating milk and meat.
I’ll try making blanc-mange soon, with Irish moss, which I hope Theo and I will gather ourselves this summer. We’ll garnish it with raspberries from our garden – if our snow-buried canes ever resurrect themselves.
Laura McCandlish is a Brunswick-based food writer and radio producer. Follow her on Twitter: baltimoregon.