Bringing the Watery Sense of Place
to Our Plates
Story and photos by Austin Price
Ian O’Hollaren wades through the intertidal zone south of Half Moon Bay looking for the algae called “mermaid’s hair.” This deep-red, spaghetti-like seaweed, also known as “ogo,” can be eaten raw in soups or salads or boiled to make agar. O’Hollaren needs a few pounds of it to fill an order from Bay Area seafood distributor FreshCatch. Austin Klein, “co-flounder” at FreshCatch, plans to use it as a martini garnish.
As the tide ebbs, O’Hollaren spots the ogo waving in the water in long strands between other favorite edible seaweed species in this “garden of the sea,” to use his favored term for such places with their abundance of raw ingredients. Dwarf rockweed, cat’s tongue, splendid iridescent, sea palm, nori . . . each glistens in the sunlight breaking through the early morning fog. O’Hollaren kneels down to cut the mermaid’s hair. “I want people to taste seaweed in its essence,” says the Ventura-born, Hawai'i-educated coastal forager. “The textures, the flavor, the whole integrity of it in its rawest form.”
This philosophy makes O’Hollaren’s business, Seaquoia Wild Seaweeds, a good fit as a supplier for FreshCatch. Both businesses are founded on the principle of providing Californians with ingredients from an often-overlooked source: the waters off their coast.
“While the locavore American food movement has spurred the production and consumption of local land food beyond all expectations, local seafood remains mostly a quaint curiosity,” says writer Paul Greenberg in his book American Catch. “We are too confused or too preoccupied to widen the circle of localness to include the local ocean.”
FreshCatch aims to widen that circle by offering fruits from our local sea through seafood delivery, farmers’ market sales, and educational initiatives. It’s a collaborative endeavor that comes out of a community of small-scale seafood suppliers committed to creating a better market for their product through local demand.
In the spring of 2019, FreshCatch put on a dinner in collaboration with Oakland-based Alice Collective. Called “On the Hook,” it was set up as a series of events themed around environmental issues related to our seafood, like kelp deforestation or salmon habitat destruction. Conservationists, fishers, and other experts versed in the evening’s issue were rounded up for talks to accompany each course. Meals were curated with local ingredients with proceeds earmarked for relevant conservation-based organizations.
“Seafood is a wild product that’s unseen,” says Jessy Ryan, the other half of the FreshCatch team. “We’re trying to change how people see it locally.”
Bringing a Local (Sea)Food Economy to Light
FreshCatch started as a passion project. As students at UC Santa Cruz, Klein and Ryan leased a few acres outside town where they grew produce for a small subscription box they could deliver to friends and neighbors. A few of those friends were involved locally in commercial fishing, and they were curious whether their catch might be included in the boxes.
Ryan and Klein looked into the permits that could make that happen and started to see potential in growing a true local food economy: Here were local fishers who needed a stronger local market and consumers who wanted fish from a local source. “Once we started focusing on seafood, we realized that was where we had the most potential to make a difference,” says Klein.
In 2015, the duo officially launched FreshCatch, trading their farm in Santa Cruz for a 15,000-square-foot seafood-processing warehouse in South San Francisco. They began to build their list of partner boats by visiting the docks in Half Moon Bay, asking these sea foragers if they were looking for a better market for their catch. While some were skeptical, others, particularly those working on a smaller scale, were interested to hear more.
Unlike most fishmongers, Klein and Ryan promised they would write checks right away, often paying more than market price, as long as FreshCatch could have hands and eyes on the product from dock to consumer. Traceability is important to them, they told these fishers, as is making sure their suppliers earn a livable wage. Their list of partner boats grew.
“We’re in the business of empowering fishermen,” says Klein, who describes the common practice in the industry of sending seafood to China to be processed, portioned, sealed, and frozen for upwards of a year before being sent back here for sale to consumers.
FreshCatch now works with boats up and down the coast, bringing in a variety of local fish from black cod and king salmon to Dungeness crab and anchovies. They sell whatever they get from the docks immediately, and they hold no inventory. Between weekly deliveries, twice-weekly farmers’ markets, and pop-ups (such as their monthly pop-up at Temescal Brewing in Oakland), the seafood they source goes directly from sea to consumer in no more than a day or two. “We want a more traceable market and for people to have a demand for local fresh fish,” says Ryan.
Suppliers include sea vegetable foragers like O’Hollaren as well as a handful of aquaculture partners like American Abalone Farms in Davenport. Ultimately, the idea of FreshCatch and their partner businesses is to put a sense of place back on our plates. In a food system fraught with seafood fraud, overfishing, and other unsustainable practices, Klein and Ryan aim to deliver a local product while empowering consumers with transparent answers to two essential questions about their seafood: Where does it come from, and how is it caught?
As they realized they were able to provide such answers, Ryan and Klein felt a desire to go even further, to deepen their customers’ seafood awareness through educational dinners.
On the Hook dinners
On a Thursday night in April 2019, Klein and Ryan hosted around 30 guests at an On the Hook dinner. Titled “Searchin’ for Urchin,” this event was focused on seaweed and California’s kelp forest ecosystem. O’Hollaren’s ogo, harvested fresh that morning, appeared in a seaweed martini alongside five courses that the Alice Collective’s executive chef Lance Velasquez created with ingredients from the FreshCatch community of suppliers.
An appetizer of uni tostadas—sea urchin “tongue” on crunchy nori chips—came out before the soup course, a creamy uni bisque. Next out were a coleslaw-like salad featuring wakame seaweed from the Mendocino coast and two mains, a farmed-abalone schnitzel and braised abalone on chickpea cakes. For dessert, guests enjoyed “weed brownies,” fudge brownies topped with nori seaweed crème fraîche and miso caramel. North Coast Brewing Co. added appropriate beer pairings.
Beyond the themed meal, the dinner was focused on education and advocacy. “We’re trying to give more insight into seafood,” says Alice Collective founder Ted Wilson. “People can walk away with the right message on how to navigate the ecosystem of their food.”
Know Your Kelp Forest
During the dinner, Tristin McHugh, Northern California regional manager of Reef Check California (which received the proceeds from the event), shared data and observations from her dives in the North Coast’s kelp forests. Giant kelp provide a floating canopy for a rich, dynamic marine ecosystem, she explained. That can include thousands of species of fish, invertebrates like sea stars and urchins and abalone, marine mammals, and other varieties of seaweed. This kelp forest also mitigates coastal erosion from wave impact and sea level rise while taking in carbon dioxide and producing oxygen, thereby helping to regulate greenhouse gases.
But the kelp forests are in decline, particularly off the coast of Northern California. In recent years, warmer surface temperatures have led to a massive die-off of bull kelp forests, while a 2013 wasting disease outbreak nearly eradicated many species of sea stars, causing a cascade effect of ecological imbalance. Sea stars prey on purple urchins, which eat through the holdfasts of kelp. Without sea stars, urchin populations spike, spelling bad news for kelp forests. With less kelp, other species, like the beloved red abalone, suffer. Last year, California Fish and Wildlife closed recreational abalone harvesting until 2021.
For a diver like McHugh, losing kelp is like seeing a forest turn to desert. “We should think of kelp forests like our redwoods,” she says. “If 90% of our kelp dropped dead, we should notice that and take it seriously.”
Of course, we can’t take a walk through the kelp forests like we would a redwood grove. We can’t always see the effects of human impact or climate change on our oceans. But those who presented and otherwise collaborated to put on this dinner—McHugh, Klein and Ryan, Alice Collective, O’Hollaren, and other suppliers—are in accord in their message: Our local food should tell the story of that impact on our ecosystem. We should know the ecological reasons why we can’t dive for abalone anymore, or why we should consider eating more urchins and finding other reasons to harvest them. We should take ecological responsibility for the seafood we choose to eat, “widen the circle of localness” as Greenberg wrote, and in the process, support a local market for local fishers.
For O’Hollaren, that means eating more varieties of seaweed from our intertidal garden. People at markets often ask him, “Well, what do I do with them?” His reply? “What do you do with lettuce, what do you do with an onion, what do you do with garlic? You make salads or a stir-fry. You use it as a base. You can do that with seaweeds.” Standing shin-deep in the Pacific Ocean, he adds, “We need to reconnect people to the area they live in so they can better understand its ecosystem and see a reason to protect it.” ♦
Berkeley-based journalist Austin Price focuses his writing and photography on farming, fisheries, and environmental science. He spends his free time keeping up with his wife and dog on a trail run or tending his backyard garden. View his work at austinmprice.com.
Find ogo seaweed at Tokyo Fish in Berkeley, California, or try asking for it at your local fish market. For a garnish of kelp pickles, check out Barnacle Foods, a small company in Alaska.
1 sprig of fresh ogo seaweed
2 ounces dry gin (plus more for soaking ogo)
4 dashes orange bitters
1 ounce dry vermouth
Olive, lemon twist, or kelp pickle
Presoak the ogo seaweed in gin, and don’t be surprised if the gin brightens up the color of the seaweed.
Add 4 dashes of orange bitters to a mixing glass. Pour gin and vermouth on top and add ice. Stir well, then strain into a chilled coupe glass. Garnish with an olive, lemon twist, or a kelp pickle.
Sea Urchin Tostadas
When you’re sitting at the sushi bar trying to identify all the things in the case, uni (aka sea urchin roe) is an easy one: It’s those small golden tongues arranged in a wooden box. The sea urchin has five chambers within its shell, and each chamber contains one of these tongues (which are gonads and not roe). You need two urchins to get the 10 tongues for this recipe. You can almost always buy them at Tokyo Fish in Berkeley, California, but try asking your local fishmonger if they are able to get them. Helping to raise demand for this delectable seafood at the market is the best way you can help save our kelp forests.
Serves 4–6 as an appetizer
10 uni tongues (sea urchin roe)
2 cups sushi rice
2 tablespoons mirin (or to taste)
½ teaspoon salt (or to taste)
1 small package nori sheets (You’ll have plenty left over.)
½ cup cornstarch
1 tablespoon wasabi powder
Oil for frying (We like to use rice bran oil.)
Yuzu ponzu sauce
2 scallions, sliced into thin strips and set in ice water to curl
Rinse rice until water runs clear. Place rice in a cooking pot (or rice cooker) with enough water to cover plus a little extra (about 1:1.25 ratio rice to water). Add mirin and salt to taste.
If using a rice cooker, use your usual setting for white rice and watch to make sure rice doesn’t dry out. You want it to be a little wet and sticky for this purpose. If using the stove, start cooking rice on high heat, stirring every minute or so until water boils. Then turn heat to low and cover the pot. After 6 to 8 minutes, check whether rice has absorbed all the water. If water remains, cook a little longer, but be careful that rice is not burning on the bottom of the pot. Let rice cool to room temperature. (Rice can be made ahead.)
To make the nori tostadas, combine cornstarch and wasabi powder in a shallow bowl with enough water to make a thin batter. Start with ½ cup water and add more as you work to maintain consistency.
Heat oil on medium-high in a skillet to just below smoke point. Dip each nori square in the batter to lightly coat and fry in oil until golden and firm like a chip (less than 30 seconds). Set fried nori chips on paper towels to drain.
Scoop 1 tablespoon rice onto each nori tostada. Add a dash of yuzu ponzu on top of rice and then top with an uni tongue and a garnish of scallion curls.
Serve and enjoy!