Put this foraging expedition on your summer bucket list.

By Leilani Marie Labong
July 12, 2018
Coastal Foraging, Chef Rupert Blease
Credit: Max La Riviere-Hedrick

All seven dishes of a recent coastal-foraging dinner at Lord Stanley, a Michelin-starred restaurant in San Francisco’s Russian Hill neighborhood, were exceptional tributes to the lovingly hand-harvested plants that inspired the meal, but course No. 3—kombu-cured ahi tuna—was the one that triggered a little nostalgia.

Detecting a subtle umami note from the lightly preserved, delicately curried fish, I was suddenly reliving the sunny spring day in which I followed sea forager Kevin Kelley into the icy waters of California’s Sonoma Coast to inspect a patch of kombu. The amber-hued broadleaf seaweed, commonly dried and used to deepen the flavors of Japanese dashi, is a favorite of his clients, Michelin-rated chefs such as Daniel Boulud and Christopher Kostow.

Sea Lettuce and Kombu Cured Ahi Tuna by Chef Brett Cooper of Aster
Credit: Chef Jason Fox of Commonwealth; Val Cantu

In collaboration with Bay Area restaurants, Kelley’s Petaluma-based company, Blue Ocean Goods, recently launched a series of coastal foraging-and-dinner weekends: On Saturdays, adventuring foodies meet on a Sonoma or Marin County shoreline with a friendly tide, where Kelley expounds the bona fides of different seaweeds, rules for harvesting, and methods of preparation. The group, instructed to don waterproof boots, scrambles over boulders and splashes through shallow waters to cut their own crop. Though Kelley, who usually wears a full wetsuit on solo forages, prefers to “dive for seaweed” (namely kelp, which grows in thick forests farther out to sea), he keeps close to shore in the company of novices.

The day’s yield may include feather boa (its oval-shaped air sacs can be brined like olives), dwarf rock weed (the mildly briny antler-shaped fronds make a great raw garnish), or bladderwrack (which lends a sophisticated umami note to homemade ice cream).

“Seaweed is an incredibly sustainable food source, and there’s just so much of it around,” Kelley says. “It’s the fastest-growing food organism on the planet.”

Besides that, seaweed, which has been prized for its spectrum of oceanic flavors in centuries-old coastal cooking traditions from Ireland to South Africa, is also nutrient-dense (magnesium, iron, iodine, calcium—shall we go on?) and vitamin-rich (A, C, B12, among others).

Seaweed forage
Credit: Max La Riviere-Hedrick

On Sunday night, participants enjoy the fruits of their labor at a multi-course meal inspired by their take. Host chefs in San Francisco include Brandon Jew of Mister Jiu’s, Aster’s Brett Cooper, Jason Fox of Commonwealth, and Lord Stanley’s Rupert Blease, who says that “cooking with the stuff requires a sense of adventure.” Inventive dishes of past coastal-foraging dinners include beef tartare served with seaweed-flecked madeleines, barbecued alliums garnished with dwarf rockweed, and coconut rice pudding drizzled with seaweed caramel.

Bag of Crabs
Credit: Max La Riviere-Hedrick

Back for a moment to that particularly memorable course No. 3: the kombu-cured ahi. Even as I admired its artful presentation, I couldn’t take my mind off the fact that I’d helped it come to fruition. Granted, I hadn’t been the one to dust it in Japanese curry spices, nor had I had been the one to think of brightening its earthiness with cucumber and apricot. But I had helped snip the star ingredient—the broad seaweed—on the Sonoma shoreline, and that made it all the more satisfying.

“Making the connection between nature and your food is the best reason for us to do this,” says Kelley.

Upcoming events in the coastal foraging and dinner series will take place in August 2018, October 2018, and February 2019. For more information, go to blueoceangoods.com.

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