Kombu: The secret to an octopus' garden

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It is officially soup season. My stockpot is staking a permanent position on the stove top, and I just bought a large supply of dried kombu.

Kombu is a kind of sea cabbage, otherwise known as seaweed. It is a natural flavor enhancer that offers huge health benefits for its tiny size. Sea vegetables are one of the most abundant food families on Earth, yet they are surprisingly underused in American cuisine.

Kombu is known for reducing blood cholesterol and hypertension. It is high in iodine, which is essential for thyroid functioning; iron, which helps carry oxygen to the cells; calcium, which builds bones and teeth; and vitamins A and C, which support eyes and immunity, respectively.

Kombu has an almost magical ability to render beans more digestible and less gas-producing. Kombu contains enzymes that help break down the raffinose sugars in beans, which are the gas-producing culprits. Once they are broken down, we are able to absorb more of the nutrients, and we can enjoy these legumes without as many intestinal complaints.

How does one use kombu?

• Add a 4-inch strip to beans prepared on the stove or in a slow cooker.

• When adding the water or broth to a soup or stew recipe, pop in a 4-inch strip of kombu. Once cooked, remove the kombu, chop it up and return it to the pot.

• Add a 2-inch strip to a pot of brown rice. Discard when the rice is ready.

• If a recipe's cooking time is short, soak a strip of kombu in warm water for 20 minutes before adding. Don't forget to use the soaking water in your recipe -- it is full of minerals.

• Add chopped, soaked kombu to canned soup for added nutrition.

Dried kombu is an ideal pantry staple, as it will store in a cool, dry place for several years if kept airtight. It is found at Whole Foods, Asian markets, many gourmet markets and in the Asian foods section at some mainstream markets.

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