New England’s culinary scene is defined by seafood, particularly in the summertime. Soft-shell crab, lobster rolls, sweet, succulent oysters and clams — our proximity to the shore affords us a host of delicious oceanic offerings to sup upon. Diners eager to really make the most of what the ocean has to offer, however, should start at the very bottom of the food chain: phytoplankton.
Invisible to the naked eye but appearing as a green mass in large numbers, these little dudes are rich in omega-3s and provide a hit of light salinity and grassiness to the dishes they grace on land. They come in a powder form, so they’re best either freshly hydrated and used as a garnish (found on the hickory-smoked Beau Soleil oyster at Bistro du Midi, a velvety, sensual complement to the bivalve) or folded into a pasta dough or foam. Though they’ve been hiding on the menus of discerning chefs for a long while now (think Tony Maws’ plankton conchiglie pasta at Craigie on Main), plankton and their deep-sea fellows are making a particularly strong showing this season.
“I’m sure you’ll see it on more and more menus as the word gets out,” L’Espalier chef de cuisine Matthew Delisle says, noting that the high price tag — about $350 for almost 9 ounces — is usually enough to deter much experimentation. “Not many chefs are willing to put that type of money into non-protein items.”
Plankton can be found as a fumet on one of his current dishes, and he says he has plans to work it in to a crab and cucumber concoction later this month. Using it, he adds, is just one more way to incorporate “everything ocean” into his dishes — he’s also a fan of seaweed, sea beans, beach plums and lichen.
“I always have seaweed on the menu somewhere,” says. “It’s one of those products that we have in abundance in New England, but for some reason people are not using much of it...[these] ingredients will make a surge since we are now, slowly, getting over pork.”
You don’t always have to schlep to the beach to get a taste of the ocean; here’s where to get your phyto-fix before the season’s over.
Bistro du Midi
What to Order: Hickory-smoked Beau Soleil oyster with phytoplankton and smoked pepperoncini pearls; Loup de Mer with fennel confit, sea beans, and lobster-plankton emulsion.
What to Order: When it’s available on their tasting menu; Plankton paired with scallop ceviche, compressed celery, home grown tomatoes, candied fennel and paprika oil. This dish features the plankton as a duo; first as an aioli and also as a foam.
Craigie on Main
What to Order: House-made plankton conchiglie pasta with sea urchin, cocks combs, and guanciale.
What to Order: Halibut with English peas, oyster-spinach emulsion, compressed fennel with walnut oil and plankton fumet.