Sugar kelp, a sustainable CT product, finds its way to restaurant plates - and local beer

Photo of Leeanne Griffin
At The Essex in Centerbrook, chef Colt Taylor will offer an al pastor-style roasted Ora King salmon, served with heirloom corn hominy "risotto" with sugar kelp, cucumber avocado and salsa verde kelp emulsion finished with a crispy sugar kelp soufflé.

At The Essex in Centerbrook, chef Colt Taylor will offer an al pastor-style roasted Ora King salmon, served with heirloom corn hominy “risotto” with sugar kelp, cucumber avocado and salsa verde kelp emulsion finished with a crispy sugar kelp soufflé.

Courtesy of Colt Taylor

A Mystic chef worked blanched, pureed sugar kelp into a pasta dough to make fresh bucatini. A Colchester restaurant owner crafted a version of creamed kelp with smoked scallops. And in New Haven, kelp found its way into a specialty cocktail, with wasabi-infused vodka, cucumber and yuzu.

Sugar kelp, a native-to-Connecticut seaweed, is getting its time in the spotlight, with a special weeklong promotion showcasing its culinary versatility. More than 40 restaurants, bars, breweries and distilleries along the entire coast are using the environmentally-friendly, nutrient-rich sea crop in featured dishes, baked goods, beers and cocktails for New England Kelp Harvest Week, running from April 17 to 25.

The Essex Public Market in Centerbrook will also use sugar kelp like wakame seaweed salad in its sushi bowls.

The Essex Public Market in Centerbrook will also use sugar kelp like wakame seaweed salad in its sushi bowls.

Courtesy of Colt Taylor

This is the first year of the restaurant event, said kelp farmer Jonathan McGee, owner of New England Sea Farms in Guilford. McGee partnered with Suzie Flores, a fellow farmer who co-owns and operates Stonington Kelp Co. off the coast of Stonington, to form the Sugar Kelp Collective and help the crop “find its rightful place on local dinner plates throughout the tristate area.”

“We’re really pleased with the reception, with the support of the restaurants,” McGee said. He and Flores initially thought they’d limit the scope of the event to Connecticut, but a few venues in neighboring New York and Rhode Island have also signed on for the promotion.

Kelp farmers Suzie Flores of Stonington Kelp Co., pictured, and Jonathan McGee of New England Sea Farms in Guilford formed the Sugar Kelp Collective.

Kelp farmers Suzie Flores of Stonington Kelp Co., pictured, and Jonathan McGee of New England Sea Farms in Guilford formed the Sugar Kelp Collective.

Courtesy of Elizabeth Ellenwood

While McGee is thrilled about chefs’ creativity highlighting kelp’s adaptability, he’s equally excited that more consumers will learn about its nutritional values. Local sugar kelp is high in calcium, vitamin K, vitamin C, iodine and magnesium, he said, along with fiber and omega-3s.

Kelp is also regenerative, and needs no inputs such as fertilizers, pesticides, fresh water or arable land — “just ocean water and sunlight,” McGee said. He calls kelp farming “really gratifying,” as a sustainable crop that not only helps filter carbon and nitrogen from the waters, but produces a healthy food source.

McGee said several of the participating chefs have worked with kelp before, but for some, it was a new experience. To help with the learning curve, he and Flores set up a website with DIY suggestions: tips on how to handle and store the crop and a few hints on how to cook and prepare the product: blanching it like spinach, kale or collard greens; blending it into smoothies, adding it to soups and sauces for more complex flavors.

“We got several chefs some products earlier so they could explore and learn the flavor profile, and then be ready to go,” he said.

Kelp is showing up in beer at Groton’s Outer Light Brewing Company (brewed as a stout with Mystic oysters), in bagels at New Haven’s Olmo (featuring dried roasted kelp) and as “fettuccine” with uni butter, bacon and Manila clams at the waterfront Shell & Bones, in New Haven’s City Point neighborhood.

At The Essex in Centerbrook, chef Colt Taylor will offer an al pastor-style roasted Ora King salmon, served with heirloom corn hominy “risotto” with sugar kelp, cucumber avocado and salsa verde kelp emulsion finished with a crispy sugar kelp soufflé.

Renee Touponce, chef at Mystic’s Oyster Club, is no stranger to working with the sea crop, and produced the kelp bucatini for the week, accompanied by a seaweed jalapeño aioli. That’s not all — Touponce, who has an avid interest in fish “charcuterie,” also cured slabs of halibut with soy sauce, and will grate the finished fish over the pasta.

Oyster Club's dish of kelp bucatini with sugar kelp aioli and grated soy-cured halibut.

Oyster Club’s dish of kelp bucatini with sugar kelp aioli and grated soy-cured halibut.

Courtesy of Idlewild Photo Co.

Oyster Club has a good working relationship with Flores and Stonington Kelp Co., Touponce said, and she has even joined Flores out on her boat, deepening her appreciation for the crop and how it’s harvested.

“I always try to incorporate [kelp] as much as I can, whenever it’s available,” she said. “It’s just finding out different techniques and different styles that you can work with. For us, it’s adding into dishes to enhance umami flavor.”

Tim Marotto, the owner of Vintage in Colchester, has always presented a menu inspired by local products, and he said he’s been intrigued by kelp’s culinary flexibility and nutritional benefits. He also recently joined Flores on her boat, seeing the kelp harvest up close.

Marotto plans to serve a smoked scallop dish with creamed kelp, along with shio Koji duck served with sugar kelp and crispy rice. He praised the kelp’s natural salinity, which enhances the dishes it’s added to, he said.

“It has a good presence...[the flavor] is not something that takes over,” he said. “And people just kind of expect seaweed salad, so it’s good to see there are other things you can do with it.”

In addition to special menus, New England Kelp Harvest Week will offer other educational programming, in partnership with Yellow Farmhouse Education Center, Long Island Sound Ocean Cluster (LISOC) and Greenwave. The Yellow Farmhouse Education Center will host students in New London, Norwalk, and Stonington for virtual field trips to learn more about kelp farming, and also plans to present Zoom panel discussions, cooking and cocktail classes, and other virtual learning opportunities.

For more information and a list of participants, visit newenglandkelp.com.