When food obsessives announce that they have discovered a delicious new thing to eat, generally the first or second thing they’ll tell you is the secret ingredient or special technique that makes it possible. These bleats of discovery can be exciting, at least for those of us who thrill to the sense of opportunity afforded by the next new thing in food. Cooking, after all, is alchemy, the transformation of base materials into something valuable and rare. Who wouldn’t want to know the latest incantations?
But it can be equally magical sometimes, particularly in restaurants, to eat in ignorance and bliss, to not be told anything at all about the food on your plate — unless of course you are a food obsessive and need to know why it tastes so good. So it was on a recent night when I ate a little packet of bluefish steamed in red chard at Houseman, the Manhattan restaurant of the chef Ned Baldwin. Let me be clear right from the start: Steamed bluefish was not a promising order. People in restaurants tend to like their fish crisp at the edges, at the very least, not steamed. They like it white-fleshed and flaky, not dark and oily, beneath a soft carapace of vegetable matter.
But Baldwin’s fish was fantastic, almost exploding with flavor: briny, buttery-rich, silky-salty, with a powerful roundness barely checked by the sweetness of the chard that surrounded it. Its preparation haunted me for days, and eventually I broke down and asked Baldwin how he made it. “It’s dulse butter that does it,” he said, laughing: a compound of unsalted butter and the ground, dried sea lettuce that has been harvested on the coast of Ireland and the shores of the North Atlantic for centuries (the word itself is Gaelic in origin). He said he smears each fillet with the stuff before wrapping it in the chard and cooking it slowly in the oven, flipping the packets often, to keep the meat moist.
I started cooking with dulse all the time. Particularly now, when the farm stands near my home are bleak and largely empty, I use dulse (and butter too) to impart big flavor to my cooking, with no one the wiser. I use it as Baldwin does, to anoint fillets of cod and tautog, porgy and weakfish. I use it as a dipping sauce, for steamed clams, and as a medium in which to warm bay scallops before serving them with toast. And I love it particularly in this chowder of root-cellar vegetables, clams and fish, one of the easiest and best things to cook for a winter weekend meal. Using a dulse butter at the base of the soup, for the fat in which I sauté the vegetables before deglazing them, makes each individual flavor in the resulting chowder pop, distinctly and with bright effect, from carrot to leek, parsnip to potato, bacon to clam to scallop to fish.
And I think there is no reason to explain to anyone why this is the case, how the powdered seaweed acts as a flavor enhancer, how it contains a natural version of monosodium glutamate, how it’s harvested off rocks at the bottom of the tide: dulse, Palmaria palmata, bounty of the sea. In part that is because I prefer the magic of the meal to the explanation of the trick that makes it. And in part it is because like a lot of us I cook for children and sometimes people who act like children, for those who quail at the new, at the odd, at the unfamiliar, the poorly branded, the strange. Seaweed people know this well. There’s no reason to court questions. They don’t say they cook with dulse. They just cook.