by Andrea Pyenson
One of the indelible moments in our family lore is The Day Uncle Les Ate Seaweed. We were walking along the beach in Truro, on Cape Cod, when my brother-in-law, a physician who had lived in Japan, bent down, scooped a handful of tangled slimy green stuff off the sand and started to munch, expounding on its health-inducing properties. My two boys, 6 and 10 at the time, stood with their mouths agape, before turning away in fits of giggles.
I share this story with Sarah Leech-Black when we meet to talk about her new product, Sarah's Sea Salsa. The name comes from one of the condiment's unique ingredients, laver, the Atlantic cousin of nori, which is harvested off the coast of Maine. Leech-Black says the dried sea vegetable imbues a mellow, salty flavor to her creation. "If you didn't know it was there, you wouldn't pick out seaweed," she says.
There is almost always salsa in my refrigerator. I guess that makes me like most of my fellow Americans, who buy so much of it that it has surpassed ketchup as the country's number-one condiment. When I try this tart, fresh, green iteration (salsa verde), I taste tomatillo, onion and garlic, with a definite chili kick. Leech-Black describes it as medium heat. She's right: I can't pick out the seaweed. But there is a subtlety to the flavoring. And there's no comparison to any jarred versions I've had.
Leech-Black, a 25-year-old Boston University graduate, has been refining her recipe since she was in school. A longtime fan of Mexican food, and a vegetarian, she likes salsa because "It's simple, with lots of fresh ingredients." When she was in college, she says, "My roommates and I would have taco night, burrito night," with her salsas giving the dishes much of their character.
In 2008, Leech-Black was living in London, managing the cheese room at Whole Foods' flagship store there. "They don't eat salsa, so I made it for my flat mates and me. It was good to have salsa to spice things up," she says. Her British friends, more used to chutneys or "salad cream," found the condiment a bit foreign. During that year, Leech-Black had her first inkling that she might be able to take her salsa to the next level. "Going abroad gave me a strong sense of independence. I felt I had the attributes to make this creative culinary project into something more," she says.
Growing up in northern Virginia with a working single mother and three sisters (one a fraternal twin), Leech-Black began to cook at a fairly young age. She was the only one of the sisters who "gave up on the frozen food thing," finding cooking "therapeutic." About a year out of college, shortly after she started working for Whole Foods, she briefly followed a macrobiotic diet. She no longer does, but says, "I regularly eat staples-miso soup, dark greens, seaweed-of that diet and believe in its principles of eating with the seasons."
When she came back to the U.S., Leech-Black returned to Whole Foods in Brighton, but pursued her salsa dreams. Her current room mate, who comes from a family of Irish seaweed harvesters, suggested she try adding the new ingredient to her salsa. She experimented with several varieties-dulse, which was thick and chewy, and too strong; wakame, which had good flavor but a difficult texture to work with; and sushi nori, too closely identified with sushi-before settling on laver, also known as "wild Atlantic nori." It grows wild on the Maine coast from early spring to late fall. Leech-Black buys it dried from Maine Coast Sea Vegetables, "then toast[s] it and crinkle[s] it into basically a powder." A one-pound bag is enough for about 150 12-ounce containers of salsa.
In addition to its flavor notes, as my brother-in-law pointed out to my family years ago, seaweed has many health-boosting properties. It contains minerals and trace elements, including calcium, magnesium, iron, potassium and iodine. It is also a rich source of vitamins, fiber, protein and antioxidants. Some recent research has shown sea vegetables' anti-viral properties, as well as their role in the inhibition of tumor formation and reduction of cholesterol. "Cultures that have used it for centuries, like Japan, are so healthy," Leech-Black notes.
The budding entrepreneur says she "nailed my recipe" last summer, and began selling her salsa at the Boston University farmers market. She was surprised by the positive response she got, especially when she told customers about the secret ingredient. "I like to educate people about seaweed," she says, and at BU she had a receptive audience. After that successful test market, she branched out to Dave's Fresh Pasta in Somerville and Savenor's in Cambridge. "People have been so good to me," she says, mentioning the owner of To Die For Dips, and other small-scale artisanal food producers who have been generous with advice and support.
Leech-Black makes her salsa in the kitchen of the Church of St. John the Evangelist, on Bowdoin Street in Boston, where her aunt is a pastor. There is a soup kitchen on weekends, so she cooks during the week. Sometimes she has musical accompaniment: the church organist or weekly hymn practice. Recently she invested in an eight-quart food processor.
Because the salsa is sold fresh, Leech-Black produces batches based on demand. Estimating quantities is still a challenge, she concedes. While she is hopeful that her nascent business will grow, she says she wants to keep it to a small scale. Her goal right now is to earn enough money to be able to travel, to research authentic salsas. "I don't want to get rich," she says. "I just want to get to Mexico."
At this point, she only makes the salsa verde, but plans to expand her repertoire to tomato and fruit salsas.With seaweed.
Uncle Les would approve.
Sarah's Sea Salsa
Andrea Pyenson writes about food and travel. Her work has appeared in several print and online publications, including the Boston Globe, the Washington Post, Fine Cooking, msn.com and oneforthetable.com.