Maine Coast Sea Vegetables touts seaweed for everyday consumption
TRENTON — It was lunchtime at Trenton Elementary School, and the first batch of kids piled in for a quick bite before their snowy recess. In the corner of the room was something — and someone — unusual in a school cafeteria.
Bags of kelp, alaria, dulse and other seaweed were displayed on a table brightened with a seashell-print cloth. Flyers and recipe cards described what the children were going to eat and drink.
Behind the table, Kara Ibarguen stood holding a blender and wearing an apron that read, “I get by with a little kelp from my friends.” She poured out smoothies for the kids to try with their lunch. The ingredients: strawberries, bananas, orange juice and alaria, or “winged kelp.”
Ibarguen is the baker at Maine Coast Sea Vegetables, a Hancock company that produces food products from freshly harvested kelp, sea lettuce, alaria and dulse, among other marine plants. She makes the company’s Kelp Krunch bars, which are thin energy bars made of sesame, seaweed and syrup.
There are considerable differences between these types of plants. Kelp is a generic name for more than 300 different kinds of large, brown algae. Dulse is a large, red plant that’s soft and chewy and good in garnishes and seasonings. Alaria is similar to the subtly-flavored Japanese seaweed wakame used often in miso soup.
The Trenton Elementary tasting was Ibarguen’s first at the school. The Trenton school has a vegetable garden and uses its own produce as well as locally produced food products in its lunch program. Through its harvest of the month program, the school also incorporates fresh food grown right on the campus.
“We have found that if the kids go out and grow stuff, they will eat it,” said the school’s kitchen manager, Teresa Gray.
The kids lined up to try the smoothies. One student’s eyes widened as she saw the drink in a small Dixie cup. She decided to try it, and took a sip. Walking over to a friend who didn’t want to try, she said, “It’s pretty good! Sharon, it tastes like a regular smoothie.”
After the lunch period, as his classmates were getting dressed to go outside, a young boy shuffled over to Kara in snow pants. “I forgot to grab one,” he said while taking a cup, before shuffling back off to put on his jacket and join the other kids.
For Ibarguen, such public events are great opportunities to introduce youngsters to somewhat unfamiliar marine plants that are edible, healthy and grow in coastal Maine. The hope is that people will learn about the sea vegetables’ health benefits while also gaining an appreciation for creative ways to use nutrient-rich foods.
“People are wanting to know how to use sea vegetables in their own cooking at home,” Ibarguen said. “We’re trying to educate people about how easy it is to use and how you can add it to anything … it’s one of my favorite parts of my job.”
That job, heading up both the production of Maine Coast Sea Vegetables’ Kelp Krunch Bars and its research kitchen projects, was one she landed in four and a half years ago. The company started in 1971 and has been making the bars for decades.
Ibarguen has been around kitchens since she was young, working in various aspects of the food industry. For a little while, she was an education technician.
“I’ve always had a passion for cooking, but I never had formal education,” she said. “I just had a lot of experience.”
At Maine Coast Sea Vegetables, her tenure started with learning how to make the bars. It’s only a few organic ingredients: sesame seeds, brown rice syrup, Maine maple syrup and sugar kelp. The kelp is dried by harvesters before it’s brought to the company on Washington Junction Road. Using a bandsaw, employee Lauren Hall cuts the sugar kelp into pieces about the size of almonds.
The kelp gets roasted alone at first, with no coating, in a pizza oven. Then, it gets mixed in with the syrups and the sesame seeds and rolled out to make a smooth, thin layer of bars. It gets re-roasted for about 45 minutes, and then cut and distributed.
A new employee, 28-year-old Brandon White, has been helping Ibarguen make the bars. That change has allowed her to spend more time out of the kitchen to explore and develop new projects.
When you walk into the building, the distinct smell of seaweed lingers in each room. In the production area, employees pick through and pack sea vegetables into bags.
In the nearby research kitchen, Ibarguen can experiment with different recipes. Those cooking projects carry over to schools. In late January, Ibarguen would return to Trenton Elementary to make a cauliflower-crusted pizza topped with a red seaweed called dulse. Her plan is to continue running these workshops, encouraging schools and the kids to integrate healthy foods into their diets. To learn more, visit www.seaveg.com.