The next time you're making salad, remember the harvest of the sea

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For most of us, the word vegetable draws to mind familiar broccoli, carrots, celery, and peas-stuff from the ground. Forgotten as a fertile growing medium, the ocean also yields a wealth of vegetables, most often deemed weeds, as in seaweeds. These veggies of the deep are a valuable source of minerals, vitamins, and fibre. Full of taste and ready-seasoned by the salty sea, ocean vegetables offer a wide range of flavours and textures largely untapped in North America (except by the First Nations), despite the plethora of edible seaweeds flourishing here.

Seaweeds are plants that grow in or near salt or fresh water. Of the approximately 25,000 known species, only about 40 taste nice, and of these, only a handful are harvested for retail sale. There are four main types of seaweed: green algae (such as sea lettuce) are delicate and grow in shallow waters; red algae (dulse and nori, for example) grow and can photosynthesize in depths up to 250 metres because of their special red pigment; brown algae (arame, hijiki, wakame, and kelp are examples) grow at moderate depths of about 20 metres; and blue-green algae (such as spirulina) are primitive microscopic plants.

Seaweeds are prized not only for their flavour but also for their health properties. Although the nutritional profile varies by type, seaweed is generally low in fat and calories and rich in minerals, fibre, and vitamins. Seaweeds are being studied for their ability to rid the human body of environmental toxins, including radioactive ones, to lower cholesterol, and even to fight malignant tumours.

From a culinary perspective, Japan is best known for its use of seaweed. Ubiquitous nori-wrapped sushi is but one of many dishes in which sea vegetables shine. Kombu, a variety of kelp, is used to make dashi broth, the most common Japanese soup base. Wakame, hijiki, and arame are used in many recipes, including salads, and table seasonings such as Furikake contain seaweed flakes. Seaweeds are also enjoyed in other Asian cuisines, including Chinese and Korean.

Some Celtic cultures also developed a taste for seaweed. In Wales, laver (the same red alga from which nori is made) is cooked to a gelatinous paste then breaded in oatmeal, fried, and served for breakfast with bacon and cockles. In Ireland, Scotland, and the Canadian Maritimes, another red alga-dulse-has been harvested and consumed likely since these lands were settled. It is served on its own as a vegetable or mixed into cooked oatmeal, soups, and stews. Carrageenan, or Irish moss, is used in Ireland and Scotland to make a lightly sweet, fluffy, gelled pudding.

Much of the seaweed available in Canada is imported from Asia. There are, however, several Canadian seaweed producers. Atlantic Mariculture, out of Grand Manan, New Brunswick, harvests and dries dulse, which makes a tasty and well-disguised addition to Waldorf-type salads. Dulse is also good baked into bread, where it offers a subtle and very fine flavour to savoury loaves.

Here on the West Coast, North Water Seaweed (Campbell River) is new to the market, offering wonderful dried sea lettuce, bull kelp, and nori through the peripatetic Wild Products stall at Granville Island and soon at the Dundarave Farmers Market (in the 2400 block of Dundarave in West Vancouver). The nori is in large pieces, not in the familiar sushi sheets, and has extraordinarily good flavour. Rehydrate it and use it in salads, grain dishes, and soups.

Barkley Sound Kelp in Bamfield produces sheets of dried kombu, bull kelp, and macro kelp, and a seasoning powder of roasted and ground winged kelp. Macro kelp has a delicate texture and pleasant taste. It is very good in cucumber salads and also makes tasty fried chips. All are available at Capers Community Markets (various locations). At BC Kelp (bckelp.com/, Prince Rupert), two varieties of seaweed are available by mail order: bull kelp fronds in flakes and powder; and flaked and powdered bladder wrack.

It is worth pursuing a role for seaweeds in our diet, if only for their immense nutritional potential. The depth and variety of their tastes and textures, and their diverse culinary applications make this both easy and pleasurable. Your body and your dining companions will thank you, and you just may be at the leading edge of a hip and healthy trend.