A Santa Cruz legend shares his secrets
By Deborah Luhrman
Dennis Judson felt the pull of the tides and the seduction of the surf from an early age. At just eight years old, he would ride his bike out to Manhattan Beach in Southern California and jump right in. “L.A. was magical back in the 1940s and ’50s,” he recalls. “It was like a giant swamp. In the wintertime it would flood, and we would get lakes and rivers. There were empty fields, meadows and dairy farms, and they put our housing tract right in the middle of it.” The budding forager caught crawdads in the rivers, fished for blue gill in the lakes and captured abalone and lobster at the shore, and then he learned to dive.
“A diver owed my dad some money, so he said, ‘teach my son to dive and we’ll call it even,’” he remembers, adding that the diver would also teach him how to make his own wetsuit.
“You couldn’t buy wetsuits back then, but every dive shop had rolls of neoprene and patterns. So you just cut one out with scissors and glued it together. I had to carry glue around with me because mine always broke,” he says, laughing.
Judson’s mother wasn’t quite as enamored with the sea. “She liked fish sticks and believed that all seafood needed to be frozen,” he says. “So by the time my catch was served, it usually had freezer burn and looked pretty ugly.”
But on a Boy Scout backpacking trip, Judson discovered the joys of cooking and eating fresh-caught trout. He’s been cooking fresh seafood ever since.
In college it was a matter of survival. Judson was a biology major Humboldt State and recalls, “I barely made enough money in the summer to make it through the school year, so we fished for salmon and tuna and went crabbing. We foraged to stay alive, but it was good food.” He also learned the Native American way to bake a whole salmon, wrapped in and stuffed with laminaria—a thin, delicate kelp.
Judson was among the first graduate students to attend UC Santa Cruz in the 1960s and has made Santa Cruz his home ever since. He’s become an important part of the town’s legendary surf culture and runs a scuba diving and sea kayak shop called Adventure Sports Unlimited in the Old Sash Mill. For the past 27 years, he has been organizing the Santa Cruz PaddleFest competition for surf kayaking at Steamer Lane—a sport at which he excels. Judson occasionally offers beginner’s classes in “Seafood Foraging,” and that’s how I met him.
Motivated by my own memories of prying mussels from the rocks at Twin Lakes beach and steaming them over a bonfire in my youth, I headed for the preforaging lecture on a rainy winter night. Judson clearly relished getting back to his academic roots and teaching our group of about 15 students what to look for in the tide pools and on the rocks.
He taught us that limpets and sea snails can be found in areas that are not submerged but get good doses of sea spray. We learned that mussels, gooseneck barnacles and several types of sea vegetables are found in the upper tidal zone—which is out of the water 75% of the time. Other treasures like abalone and sea urchins are found in the low tide zone—which is submerged most of the time.
He sped through the material, but fortunately there were handouts to study at home. What really stuck in my mind was his warning about the sea palm or postelsia palmaeformis—a plant considered a delicacy but protected under California Fish and Game regulations. “Sea palm only grows on the top of rocks where the waves are especially intense,” he told us. “So if you see sea palm growing, beware! You might want to move.”
He also warned, “If you don’t want to get wet, you’re not going to be a happy forager.”
Fortunately, the next day dawned clear. We all made our way up to Pigeon Point to start foraging. Judson holds his classes during especially low tides so that foragers can observe and collect as much as possible, but foraging can be done during any negative tide. (See “Explore” box at end of story for a link to a tide table.) You do need a fishing license, however; they are sold for $40 at sporting goods stores and are good for a year.
We waded through slippery tide pools and snipped gingerly at all sorts of sea plants, which Judson called vegetables. The objective was to get a variety of colors and textures for a salad to be served at the forager’s feast after the excursion. One of the most prized vegetables was lacy purple porphyra, also known as nori and used to wrap sushi. It’s packed with nutrients and flavor.
We also searched for a brown kelp called alaria, valued for its ribs that can be pickled or served like asparagus, and for iridaea—a broad-leafed, green-red sea vegetable with an iridescent sheen that is good cut into matchstick-size pieces and pickled like the Korean condiment kimchi.
After clambering over rocky outcroppings from cove to cove, we finally got to a big rock that appears far out to sea when the tide is in. Our fearless leader nimbly climbed to the ocean side, with some of us trailing behind and others choosing to stay at the tide pools to collect limpets and vegetables.
There we found ourselves standing on an enormous mussel bed, so we pulled out prying tools made from old butter knives and began collecting. It was hard work loosening the first mollusks, but being outdoors and soaking wet in the heavenly sea spray was worth it. Then as freezing waves lapped at my feet on the jagged edge I spied it—sea palm—right next to my narrow perch. Which means “Beware! Maybe you should move on.” But mussel foraging is kind of like mushroom hunting or like gold fever—once you get started, it’s hard to stop.
We filled our pouches with all the mussels we could carry—well under the 10 pound-per-person limit—and started back, scraping knees and fingers on the sharp rocks.
On the beach, Judson popped open a bottle of champagne and urged us to try sea urchin scooped straight from the shell. It’s also known as uni and considered a real delicacy by the Japanese and the French. It tastes of the sea and has a subtle flavor, like lobster but with a soft, smooth texture.
Seafood foraging takes place primarily in the winter. Mussels and other bivalves are quarantined from May 1 to October 31 because they are potentially toxic during the summer months when the seas warm up and algae blooms take place. Even in winter, Judson recommends foraging along the coast north of Santa Cruz at places like Pigeon Point, Scotts Creek or Davenport Landing or in Big Sur around Garrapata Creek rather than along the shores within Monterey Bay. This is because big waves in the open ocean help keep the water clean and the foraged shellfish—which are natural water filters and can accumulate impurities—healthy.
Seafood foragers sometimes have other concerns—that they may be harming the natural environment, for example. In fact, Judson urges his students to treat the ocean as if it were their own garden, taking only the fruits that they intend to eat themselves and leaving enough for the next day and for the future.
“My objective is to show people that the ocean is a lovely place to be and that you have to be nice to this space. The more people appreciate it, the more they will take care of it,” he says. “An enlightened forager understands the limits so they don’t overdo it. They don’t trade on it. They just eat it.”
The third part of the foraging class involved preparing all the seafood that we had collected. After a glass of wine and a dip in the hot tub, we set to work chopping onions and cleaning our haul. Recipes have been honed over several decades to ensure that gourmet quality food can be cooked over an open fire on the beach or, in our case, on camping stoves poolside at the dive shop.
For years Judson ran month-long diving camps to Danzante Island in the Sea of Cortez off the coast of Loreto in Baja California. His rule was and still is: Everybody cooks or they don’t eat. So his classes are as much about cooking as they are about foraging. “Everybody has to learn to clean and chop garlic and make a fumet,” or concentrated fish stock, he says. “Capturing the essence of the flavor of the seafood in a broth, making fumets is what this whole thing is about.”
My partner and I volunteered to prepare Grand Marnier Mussel Stew, from Judson’s recipe. Others prepared Tuscan-style Stuffed Mussels, Coconut Curry Baked Mussels, pickled kelp, a sea vegetable salad described as “a crescendo of textures and colors” and then there was my favorite dish, Limpet Pasta—who knew those little things could be so tasty. Recipes can be found on the EMB website.
There are two Santa Cruz classes scheduled for 2013: “Seafood Foraging” in March and “Kelp Pickling” in April. (See “Explore” box on p. 31.) Judson is also leading a dive tour in August to visit the unspoiled coral reefs of Papua, New Guinea, for the fourth time. And if that’s not enough, he is trying out for the U.S. West Coast team that will compete in the World Surf Kayaking Championships in Australia in June.
Now 70 years old, Dennis Judson shows no signs of slowing down. He’s living proof of the health benefits that can be derived from eating fresh seafood, sea vegetable salads and spending your life in the ocean. And maybe that’s the greatest secret he has to share.
Chef John Cox is preparing to amaze you
If you’re curious to try seaweed, unusual shellfish and other delicacies that can be foraged along our coast—but lack the expertise to collect your own—you’ll be curious about what Post Ranch Inn’s Sierra Mar has in store for you.
Just as this issue of Edible Monterey Bay went to press in November, Executive Chef John Cox was expected to launch a new eight-course Taste of Big Sur menu, with which he intends to reflect the flavors of Post Ranch’s spectacular location as never before. The menu will be prepared almost exclusively with foraged and other local ingredients— and is ultimately aimed at elevating Sierra Mar’s cuisine to the same Top-10-in-the-world status as the restaurant’s views.
“Sierra Mar has always been known for excellent food and an unparalleled view,” Cox says. “But by creating a unique menu that is not only inspired by the natural surroundings but also can only exist in Big Sur, and presenting it in as awe inspiring a setting as our dining room, there is no reason Sierra Mar shouldn’t be able to compete with the world’s top restaurants.”
To that end, Cox—who has long been an avid forager (See EMB Spring 2012, p. 60 for his piece on foraging in our region) and daringly creative chef—has been drawing inspiration from Native American and early pioneer practices, as well as the land and sea itself to come up with his new dishes.
Among the foraged fare that he’s already developed are a dish of local wild halibut with wild fennel pollen and dulce, and another featuring abalone (farm-raised, as foraged local abalone cannot be sold commercially) that has been wrapped in kelp and smoked over a Big Sur driftwood fire. After smoking the abalone, Cox then slices it razor thin, and serves it with a tangle of carefully prepared and surprisingly beautiful local seaweed varieties, including ogo, dulce, sea lettuce, sea grapes and Turkish towel. And for those who aren’t drawn to the sea, Cox has several dishes made from exotic foraged foods from the land, including yucca blossoms, madrone berries and miner’s lettuce.
One especially inspired dish is a riff on the affinity wild boar have for Bay and Redwood forests. The dish combines boar tenderloins brined with bay leaves, a sauce made from bay fruit and another made from ground bay nuts, cocoa butter and guajillo chiles. Cox is also experimenting with some “really crazy” ideas that he’s not quite ready to share, but if his past creations are any indication, they should be incredibly inventive and delicious.
To collaborate on all of this, Cox has recruited additional talent including Jacob Pilarski, formerly the sous chef at David Kinch’s Manresa, which is also well-known for seeking to convey a sense of place in its cuisine, and sous chef Willy Ono, who most recently worked for some of the best restaurants in the world, including Spain’s Mugaritz and Denmark’s NOMA (which is known for its foraging) and Relae Restaurant. Additionally, he has plans underway to supplement his organic garden with chicken coops and beehives, and has hired Fiona Bond, previously a garden manager at Love Apple Farm, which grows Kinch’s produce, to oversee it all.
The bad news is that the eight-course menu will cost a rarified $160—even more than the $110 price tag of the restaurant’s existing four-course menu, which will continue alongside the eight-course menu.
But Cox, who rejoined Post Ranch Inn during last summer after stints with other Passport properties in Hawaii and most recently, three years with Casanova and La Bicyclette in Carmel, also came up with the brilliant idea of adding to Sierra Mar’s previous lunch of wagyu burgers and salads a three-course taste of the refined dishes on the restaurant’s dinner menu for just $40. And the view is the same as at dinner.
Adventure Sports Unlimited
303 Potrero St., #15, Santa Cruz
Seafood Foraging Class March 8-10
Kelp Pickling April 26-28
Tide tables available at www.tidesandcurrents.noaa.gov
and at sporting goods stores that sell fishing licenses.