Frozen Fruit

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There are berries available year ‘round in American grocery stores, which is super convenient. But I feel uneasy about buying fruit out of season that has been shipped from far away. The damage to the planet through the fossil fuels used to get them to me is hardly worth it. The need I have to present a pretty dessert is far less important than the need I have to leave a healthy planet for my future grand kids. I just don’t feel good about it, no matter how favorable the reviews of said dessert is.

I have no problem buying locally processed frozen fruit, but I prefer to freeze my own fruit when it is in season. No special technique is required. Sure, canned fruit, jams, and preserves are fine. But I like to hold it in zipper bags in my freezer, sans sugar or any other preparation. That frees me up to use it in whatever amazing recipe I come across later in the year, including savory recipes. I wash it, pick it free of stems, leaves, and seeds, and store in quart –sized plastic bags (which I reuse over and over…because planet).

Frozen Puff Pastry

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Puff pastry is fun to make from scratch—for me. But I’ve been doing it for thirty years. For those less experienced (or short on time), there is nothing wrong with buying ready made puff pastry. But BEWARE! It is not ready to use straight from the store. It should be defrosted slowly in the refrigerator overnight. The layers of butter and dough are delicate, Unfolding and rolling it out too soon will cause cracking, which will screw up the puff-potential.

Cleaning Chicken Livers

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Chicken livers are pretty cheap, as far as meat goes, but they do require a little attention before they can be cooked to full potential. Wash them in cold water, then spread them out onto a cutting board. Remove and discard the connective vein. Then pat the livers dry on a paper towel, then continue with the recipe.

SALT OF THE EARTH A brief guide to the rainbow spectrum of salts around the world

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While it is certainly true that there is not much in the world of food that has been left undiscovered, there is plenty that can be rediscovered. Case in point: salt.   

I fell in love with salt on a family trip to Austria, where we visited the Salt Mine Berchtesgaden. There, we rode a tiny train into a mountain, slid down a banister (used by old-time miners before elevators were invented) and sailed on an internal mountain lake. It was super fun and sparked a new passion in me for this ubiquitous, but often overlooked, ingredient. 

The first thing I learned on my new quest for salty knowledge is that all salt is sea salt.  Some is collected from existing salt water, and some is mined from salt deposits left behind from ancient seas. Tall mountain ranges, desert salt flats and underground caverns can all contain these deposits, and they all carry unique characteristics. The age of the deposit, the compression, the surrounding mineral components, local flora and fauna and the method used to extract it all determine the salt’s flavor and texture.  

Most food enthusiasts are familiar with fleur de sel — the famous French sea salt. But there are hundreds of other salts from around the world, and they are all just as interesting, if not more so. But what do you do with these interesting salts? Lucky for you, I spent a few years answering that question. As a result, coming soon to a bookstore near you is Salt: The Essential Guide to Cooking with the Most Important Ingredient in Your Kitchen (St. Martin’s Griffin; available now for presale, and in stores this September). It is an exhaustive, encyclopedic reference book on the world’s artisan salts, with history, recipes and a salt tasting.  

Yes, you heard right — a salt tasting.

All salts are not the same. They each have unique qualities that enhance foods differently. Though usually cheap in their country of origin, artisan salts in artfully designed packaging can cost a pretty penny here. (Which is why I don’t suggest using fancy salt in your pasta water.) Instead, feature them as an essential flavor element, or finish a dish with a few exceptional grains. To figure this out, a salt tasting allows you to compare a few artisan salts side by side on simple foods that act as a neutral palate.  

The first step is to invite some friends over. Then, prepare some simple foods — sliced cucumbers, radishes, grilled steak, a baguette smeared with butter or a hunk of chocolate. Offer enough of these foods so that each guest can try each salt and compare its effects. You can even prepare a score sheet, so your guests can keep track of their preferences.

Of course, you will also need to choose the salts you want to feature. You can find a number of salts at most gourmet grocers, or you can shop online. (Try themeadow.com, or my favorite, kalustyans.com.) Start with just a few easy-to-find salts. (Take it from me — it’s easy to get carried away.) Some good starter salts might include:   

Fleur de Sel de Guerande

This is the French flower of the sea collected off the coast of Brittany. Seawater is channeled from the Atlantic Ocean, via canals, into shallow marshes where it is left to evaporate. As salt crystals begin to form on the surface of the ponds, they are raked off by hand. Because the aquatic environment varies from year to year, the salt does too. It is certainly the best known of the artisan salts. The same methods are used all over the world, with similar wooden tools, and just as much reverence and tradition. 

Maldon

Salt has been made in Essex, England, for thousands of years. We know this because archeologists have identified historic salt-making sites. Red mounds of earth (a.k.a. the red hills of Essex) were formed by layers of debris that included red clay vessels used in Iron Age salt production. The Maldon Crystal Salt Company, established in the late 1800s, is the only producer in the area now. Situated at the head of the Blackwater Estuary, the company gathers water only during salty spring tides. The water is filtered and boiled slowly to produce the wide pyramidal flakes coveted by the world’s chefs. Indeed, this is one of the first salts I fell in love with. 

Cyprus Sea Salt

Thanks to its two salt lakes, the Mediterranean island nation of Cyprus has been a major salt exporter since the Middle Ages, when it was harvested from lakebeds in the dry summer months. Today, seawater is pumped into an industrial facility, where it’s gradually heated for two years, using solar evaporation to create the trademark pyramidal crystals.  

Black Diamond

This is a black version of Cyprus pyramid salt. It is infused with charcoal and is thought to have detoxifying benefits. Large black pyramidal crystals are very crunchy, yet dissolve quickly. The flavor is milder than its white counterpart, which makes it suitable for more applications. 

Himalayan Pink

This salt, from the mountains of Northern Pakistan, is a mined marine fossil salt. Estimated to be over 250 million years old, it formed naturally in an ancient sea, which was trapped and buried by shifting tectonic plates, gradually dehydrating into deep deposits. The modern mine tunnels a half-mile into the mountain range and spans more than 40 square miles. Because it has been buried for so long, it is considered some of the purest salt on earth. The color ranges from white to deep pink and comes in various textures and forms, including blocks, which are fun to use as serving plates. You can also heat them and cook on them, which is perfect when your dinner party needs a theatrical element.  

After you have tried these common artisan salts, you can graduate to some of the more obscure varieties, like blue Persian, black kamal namak, red Hawaiian alaea, smoked salt, one of the many Japanese shios, exotic bamboo salt, Incan sun salt or any of the hundreds of salts from hundreds of locations around the world. (I am currently enamored with Australian Murray River salt.) If there is, or ever was, a shoreline someplace, there is probably some artisan salt to be had. If you’re lucky, you will become similarly obsessed, and your cooking will jump to a new creative level.    

A Quick Primer on Buying and Using Fancy Salt

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bali

All salts are not created equal, and given the sudden popularity of “artisanal” salts (which you can now find even at Safeway), home cooks are catching on. But what kind of fancy salt should you buy, and when should you use it?

Here are the basics:

All salt comes from the sea—either from our modern, liquid seas or ancient seas long ago evaporated and buried by tectonic plate shifts. The salt generally label sea salt has been evaporated slowly, either in shallow pools along sunny coastlines, or over a heat source, ranging from wood fires to thermal hot springs. Sea salt is light and fluffy in its unrefined state, and comes in a variety of crystal shapes, sizes, and colors. The flavor and texture vary depending on the local marine flora and fauna, shore or pool mineral contents, and the method of evaporation.

Rock salt, mountain salt, marine fossil salt, and salt block are all terms for inland mined salt. Buried in mountains under enormous pressure for millennia, rock salt is harder and often saltier than sea salt. Its color is determined by age, pressure, adjoining minerals, and method of extraction. It comes in large blocks that can be used to serve on or cook on, as well as in varying degrees of grind.

My suggestion (and the thing I subject all guests in my home to) is a salt tasting. Buy 2 or 3 different salts, and try them side by side on a neutral food, like a cucumber slice, or bread and (unsalted) butter. You will be astonished at the complexity of each. If you find that exciting, graduate to a full-on salt-tasting party. Offer several different salts, and offer lots of salt-friendly foods—plain grilled steak, melon, boiled new potatoes, mild cheese, dark chocolate, vanilla ice cream. (Don’t forget big pitchers of water!). You can even provide your guests with a score sheet to record their thoughts and preferences. (I have provided an example for this in my book!)

Any fancy salt you come across is ripe for a tasting, but here is my favorite tasting assortment:

Black Diamond Sea Salt, Cyprus

The Mediterranean island nation of Cyprus has been a major salt exporter since the Middle Ages. Salt was harvested from the lakebeds that dried up in the summer. After World War II the island became a hub for travel between the Middle East and Europe, and an airport long-term parking lot replaced much of the lakebed. Today, seawater is pumped into industrial facilities that use the sun to gradually evaporate the water over a 2-year period, creating the trademark pyramidal crystals. This black version is infused with charcoal, and is thought to have detoxifying benefits. Black Diamond’s huge crystals are very crunchy, but dissolve quickly. The flavor is more mild than its white counterpart, which makes it suitable for more applications. Try it on vanilla ice cream, or better yet, forego the cherry and sprinkle it over your whipped-cream-topped sundae.

Murray River Salt, Australia

This salt comes from an underground briny spring in New South Wales. Water flows down from the Australian Alps into the Murray-Darling Basin, where low rainfall and high heat combine to concentrate the groundwater into an underground brine. The salt water is pumped and channeled into solar evaporation pools where it sits throughout the summer. It has an apricot color that comes from a specific carotene-rich, salt-tolerant river algea. It is extremely light and fluffy, and dissolves fast, but it still has a nice crunch. I love it as a finishing salt on simple vegetables and salads.

Arabian Fleur de Sel, Pakistan

Harvested from the Arabian Seas (not by Arabian Salt makers), it is named fleur de sel because it is made using the same method as the more famous French fleur de sel. Seawater is channeled from the sea into shallow marshes where it is left to evaporate. As salt crystals begin to form on the surface of the ponds, they are raked off by hand with traditional wooden tools. But unlike the French version, this salt more closely resembles Bali pyramid salt. In the hot, windy desert the water evaporates quick to form large pyramid crystals that are crunchy, but light. It is my preferred salt for avocado toast.

Maldon, Essex, England

Salt was made in Essex well before the Romans arrived in 300 BC. We know this because archeologists have identified the historic Red Hills of Essex, which contain red clay vessels used to evaporate seawater during the Iron Age. The Maldon Company was established in the late 1800’s at the head of the Blackwater Estuary. Water is gathered during spring tides, when low rainfall means high salinity. The water is filtered and boiled slowly to produce wide pyramidal flakes coveted by the world’s chefs. Indeed, this is one of the first salts I fell in love with. It compliments everything, and is beautiful to boot. I love it best on a well-grilled, very rare New York Strip.

Sal de Maras, Peru

This pink hued salt has been extracted from underground saline springs of the Andes since the time of the Incas. The spring is nestled in the Sacred Valley of the Incas, between Cuzco and Machu Picchu. Water trickles thru channels into thousands of terraced pools. (I highly recommend a Google image search—it is impressive.) Because the site is far away from civilization, there is little pollution, adding to the purity of this salt. It is also sometimes called Peruvian Pink and Incan Sun Salt. Try it on roasted or fried potatoes.

 

 

 

 

Sriracha Salt

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Infused_Hot_Salts

Here’s another excerpt from my upcoming book SALT: The Essential Guide to Cooking with the Most Important Ingredient in Your Kitchen.  (You can buy it here –  B&N – and here Amazon ).

I can’t explain the sudden popularity of this chile sauce. It’s been around since the early 20th century in Thailand, and has been available in the United States since 1980. The most popular brand in the US is made by Huy Fong Foods, a company that was started by Vietnamese refuge David Tran. He named his company after ship that brought him out of Vietnam. Also called “rooster sauce” because of the label design, demand has exceed supply so much that Tran doesn’t need to advertise. If you have jumped on the Sriracha bandwagon, this is the salt for you. Use it on anything that could use a spicy punch—popcorn, fried potatoes, ramen noodles, grilled seafood, and sliced tropical fruits.   I like to use a big flaked salt for this one, but it works with any salt you choose.

Ingredients

1-2 tablespoons Sriracha

1 cup unrefined sea salt

Method

  1. Stir the chile sauce and the salt together thoroughly. Spread out into a thin layer on a dry sheet to pan and set in the sun for 1-2 days, until dry. Alternatively you can dry it in an oven set 100° F, or a dehydrator overnight, or until dry. When completely dry, break up any clumps with your fingers or a spoon, and transfer to a container with a tight-fitting lid.

 

 

Variations

 

Hot Sauce Salt – You can use any chile or hot sauce you like for this recipe. My favorite is Green Tabasco!

 

Chile-Lime Salt – Make a lime salt first ( page xx) then mix it with the chile sauce and dry as directed here.

 

Soy Salt – Use a strong soy sauce or ponzu, and proceed as directed. Use it anywhere you would use soy sauce for a strong, pungent kick at the top of each bite.

 

Fish Sauce Salt – Replace the chile sauce with this ancient salty fish sauce (these days seen most frequently in Thai cooking) and proceed as directed. Use it on grilled seafood, meat, and vegetables for a burst of umami.

 

 

Ash Infused Salt

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Smoked_Salt

Smoked salt is popular, as is anything with a smoky flavor. But the use of ash is popping up more and more too. Mixed with a great coarse salt, ash makes a fantastic finish, and adds a hint of outdoor cooking (which is especially nice when you’re stuck in a tiny apartment in winter). The world’s top restaurants are harnessing the bitter smokiness of ash on everything from marinades and rubs to crunchy, crumbled garnishes for vegetables, soups, and desserts. The ash in question is typically made from an indigenous edible grass, herbs, or wood. First time ashers should use familiar edibles—rosemary, thyme, sage—dried in whole bunches, which you can do in your kitchen by hanging them upside down for a few days.

You’ll find more infused salt recipes in my upcoming book SALT: The Essential Guide to Cooking with the Most Important Ingredient in Your Kitchen.  (You can buy it here –  B&N – and here Amazon ).

Ingredients

1 large bunch of dried rosemary, thyme, or sage

1 cup unrefined sea salt

Method

Place the dried plant material on a large sheet of foil. Working away from anything flammable, preferably in a BBQ or fireplace, light the material on fire. Hold a screen, frying pan, or lid a foot above the flame to catch any ash that may float away.   Let it burn completely, then cool and transfer the ash to a small bowl. Add half the salt, mix to combine, then add the rest of the salt. Store in a jar with a tight-fitting lid for at least 1 hour before using, to concentrate the smokiness.

Beef Cuts: Brisket

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beef chart

There are nine prime cuts of beef, and the brisket is one of them.  It comes from the lower chest of beef or veal—AKA the cow’s pectoral muscles. (Nice Pecs Elsie)

Anytime an animals muscle gets a lot of action, it will be a tough cut.  That means, if it is moving a lot, as are most of the muscles on the animals lower half, tendons and connective tissue develop and strengthen the muscle.  Those that get very little movement, along the back for instance, are much more tender—as in tenderloin).  This is great for the cow, but not too good for the chef, unless you know how to cook it properly. (Hint: slow and low.)

The brisket muscle supports the weight of the cow most of the time, because cows don’t have collarbones, and they mostly just stand around (unless they’ve been tipped—see: The Story of my Misspent Youth). Therefore, the muscle develops a ton of connective tissue and cartilage.

There are two cuts of brisket you may find.  The deeper first cut or flat cut is the deep pectoral, and that is leaner.  The second cut, fat end, point cut or triangular cut is the superficial pectoral, and it is fattier.  There is a flap of fat separating the two, which ends up on the point cut, making it particularly good for smoking, if that’s your thing.

Brisket is super-popular for pot roast, and it is the cut used to make pastrami and corned beef.  It’s a common cut in dishes around the world, because it is traditionally a cheap cut.  You see it in brothy soup, curry, and noodle dishes across Asia, and cooked slowly in stews across Europe, Central, and South America.

(I love this beef chart…the way the cow is looking right at me, daring me to cook her!!!)

Stock: The Foundation of Cuisine

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stock
Stock is a basic ingredient to most soup recipes. And while it is readily available in your supermarket, it is an easy thing to make yourself. It just requires time. The main ingredients are aromatic vegetables and bones. The typical vegetables are what the chefs call mirepoix, which includes carrot, onion and celery. You can definitely add other vegetables if you’d like. The more you add, the more nutritious your stock will be. Be wary of excessively strong flavors (fennel, for instance, can overpower a soup if too much is added) and strong colors (beets will make your soup red). As far as bones go, you can buy them cheap from a butcher, or do what I do and save them after serving a large roast.

The bones of young animals and joints are the best choice for stock because the cartilage and connective tendons release collagen into the stock, making it rich, flavorful, and thick.

One trick of mine is to save scraps of meat, bones and vegetables in the freezer. I keep an empty paper milk carton in my freezer, adding scraps to it throughout the week. When it’s full, I peel the paper off the frozen block of stock scraps, toss the block into the stock pot and cover it with water. Voila! Instant stock ingredients.

Basic Stock

INGREDIENTS

4 lb. meat parts: poultry carcass, especially wings and joints; or beef, veal, or lamb bones, especially joints and meat scraps.
2 carrots, chopped
4 stalks celery, chopped
1 large yellow onion, chopped
1 bay leaf
1 tsp. black peppercorn
1 clove
1 sprig fresh (or 1 tsp. dried) parsley
1 sprig fresh (or 1 tsp. dried) thyme
About 4 quarts cold water

METHOD

  1. Preheat oven to 500˚F. Wash meat and spread into a roasting pan in one layer. Bake until well browned, about 30 minutes. Remove from oven and place in stockpot.
  2. Add to the stockpot carrots, celery, onion, bay, pepper, clove, parsley and thyme. Cover with cold water, bring to a boil over high heat, then reduce heat and cook at a bare simmer for 4-6 hours. Skim the top of the stock periodically to remove any residue.
  3. Drain stock and cool. If there is meat left on the bones, let them cool and pick the meat off for use in soups and stews.
  4. To de-grease the stock, refrigerate overnight, then remove the fat that has solidified on top. Good stock will have a jellied consistency when chilled. Store refrigerated for up to 4 days, or frozen for 1 month. Makes about 4 quarts.

Dark Brown Stock: Toward the end of roasting add the mirepoix and a small can of tomato paste to the bones, and roast just until the veg start to brown. Be careful not to burn the mirepoix, or the stock will be bitter.

Vegetable Stock: Omit the meat, and replace with a variety of vegetables. Choose an even assortment, as too much of one vegetable will overpower the stock.

Light Stock: Instead of browning the bones in the oven, put them directly in the pot with the vegetables. The stock will be slightly less rich in flavor, and lighter in color. It’s a good choice when you want the other soup and sauce ingredients to shine.

Fish Stock: Fish meat and bones have strong flavors, and do not need browning or prolonged cooking. Combine fish bones, heads, tails, skins, shells and meat scraps with vegetables, herbs the juice of 1 lemon. Cover with water and simmer for only 30 minutes.

**
Onion Brulé: Some chefs like to deepen the color of their stock with a charred onion. Simply cut in in half and cook on a grill, griddle or skillet until deeply carbonized. It’s weird, but wonderful!
onion brule

Whole Spices

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Spices

Spices will keep for years if left whole. But the minute they are ground, they start deteriorating. That means that spices taste better, and are a better value, when bought whole and ground as needed. The process isn’t hard, but it does take a little time.

Most spice benefits from toasting before grinding – but not all.  Black pepper, for instance, is good to go. Recipes will specify, but in general, the heat releases the spice oils, which changes their flavor, usually for the better. Use a dry pan, preferably made of cast iron, which conducts heat evenly. Add the spices to the pan and keep them moving by shaking the pan or stirring. This constant movement ensures the spices will toast evenly. As soon as they become fragrant, the toasting is done. Be careful, as these tiny seeds and berries can burn very quickly. Remove them from the heat and the pan ASAP. Remember, the pan is still hot and it will keep cooking the spices until you remove them.

Sometimes recipes will include heating the spices in liquid, so the toasting step can be omitted.

SpiceGrinder140x140

 

Next comes the grinding. Cool the spices before you grind them. They are easier to handle, and they emit fewer fumes.

A coffee grinder is a good tool for the smaller spices. It is small, which forces the spices through the blade more often than a larger food processor or blender does, producing a finer, more even grind. I recommend you get a separate grinder just for spices. I have had some mighty weird coffee after a particularly spicy kitchen escapade.
grinder
When I am feeling historic, I enjoy grinding in a mortar. The result is rougher, but more spiritually satisfying. (Culinary geeks, unite!) There is also a method the French call mignonette, in which whole spices are crushed by the flat bottom of a frying pan. Don’t whack the pan onto the spices like a fly swatter, but rather, use the pan to knead or rub the spices into submission. This is typically done with pepper, but it works for everything in a pinch. I like to do this when I am trying to impress people.  Or when I am too lazy to dig out the machinery.

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