Spirulina is known for its nutritional value, not its tastiness. David Posey described it as tasting like “pond scum”—and that’s essentially what it is. A type of cyanobacteria, or blue-green algae, it grows mostly in ponds and is dehydrated and sold as a dietary supplement. In addition to being a complete protein, the dark-green powder is rich in vitamins, minerals, and essential fatty acids. The Aztecs used it as a food source and called it tecuitalatl, or “stone’s excrement.”
Told about spirulina’s history, Paul Virant complained, “Basically, David Posey has given me excrement to use? That’s bullshit. I called him, too, after I got the ingredient, and I was like, ‘Are you serious? I don’t even know what this stuff is.’ He said something like, ‘It’s a superfood. If you can come up with something really badass, you’re going to be a superhero.’ I’m not so sure about that.”
Virant found the stuff at Whole Foods, and he and his team began to experiment, making a celery-root soup with croutons in spirulina oil and a fried egg dish with spirulina creme fraiche. “One of my staff—I won’t mention the name because it was kind of a failed effort—made a risotto with spirulina. It was very green-looking.”
The problem with all of those attempts, Virant said, was that while they weren’t bad, they didn’t really taste like spirulina. “I’m a big advocate of highlighting whatever the ingredient is,” he said, adding, “But I’m not so sure I want to highlight this.”
He finally settled on spirulina-encrusted sturgeon, reasoning that the fish’s “freshwater, muddy, real earthy component” would match well with the spirulina, which he also described as earthy. “It’s got some umami. It’s got that freshwater muddiness . . . that seaweed kind of taste.”
Virant decided to cure and smoke the fish, adding dill seed to the salt/sugar cure because it tends to “kind of freshen things.” After curing the sturgeon and dredging it in spirulina, he took it out to the smoker, exclaiming, “It looks like a spirulina turd!”
He paired the fish with sake, and plated it with oyster mushrooms, white turnips, and a lemon-butter sauce. “I think the weight of the dish and weight of the pairing will work,” he said. “There is a little sweetness, which I think will work with the lemon butter and the sweetness of the turnip. I don’t know what it is about sake, but there’s that flavor that just works well with fish, and seafood.
“I think the flavor of the sake and lemon butter, and the sharpness and sweetness of the turnips, and the earthiness of the mushrooms will be a nice foil.”
Virant was unenthusiastic about the potential of the spirulina itself. “I’m not convinced that the fish is going to be good, but I’m convinced that the sauce with the wine is going to be good,” he said.
But he was pleasantly surprised when he tasted the finished dish. “It really does have that seaweed taste,” he said. “It’s pretty good, actually. I think it works. If I could find a local source for spirulina, maybe I’d put it on the menu. David’s going to be proud.”
Andrew Zimmerman of Sepia, working with lamb fat. Virant said he’s always been intrigued by an olive oil jam that Zimmerman makes, “and I was thinking, hey, lamb jam.”
Zimmerman, for his part, wasn’t thrilled with the ingredient. “That jerk,” he said. “He knows I hate lamb fat. It tastes terrible.”
Virant denied any knowledge of Zimmerman’s dislike of lamb fat: “I thought he was cool like me and liked all fats. That would have sealed the deal, though.”
Video by Michael Gebert/Sky Full of Bacon
Spirulina-Encrusted Smoked Sturgeon, Roasted Oyster Mushrooms, White Turnips, Preserved Lemon Butter
1 piece of sturgeon (5-6 oz)
2 T butter
2 small white turnips, washed and thinly sliced
1 cup clean oyster mushrooms
1/2 cup sake
1 T minced onion
Preserved Lemon Butter
1 pound butter
1 minced shallot
2 T fresh parsley
Mixture of two parts salt to one part sugar in a medium container
Cut the lemon into six wedges, bury in the salt/sugar mixture, and let sit for four to six months. Remove the pulp, rinse to remove salt, and blend with the butter and other ingredients in a food processor.
Rub the sturgeon with 1/4 cup salt and 2 T sugar, let cure for six hours. Rinse off the cure, let dry overnight on a rack in a cooler or refrigerator. Wet slightly and dredge the sturgeon in the spirulina powder until completely coated. Smoke until just under medium. Meanwhile, pan roast the oyster mushrooms in the butter for about two minutes, add the turnips, and cook for another minute. Put the onion in a small saucepan with the sake, heat until reduced to almost dry (about 2 T), then whisk in 2 T preserved lemon butter. Spoon the onion sauce onto two plates, slice the sturgeon and place it on top, and top with the mushroom/turnip mixture. Serve with sake. Serves two as an appetizer.