A Quick Primer on Buying and Using Fancy Salt

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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.

 

 

 

 

Salt Crust Fish

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Your mom called.  She said she’d like my SALT book for Mother’s day.  She also wants you to make this for her on Sunday.

This recipe’s roots are in ancient Silk Road extravagance. Probably originating in the Mediterranean salt producing areas, it spread as far as China. You can salt-crust anything, (chicken was an early Chinese variation), but I like fish the best. Typically seen in the magazines with salmon, I use it on whatever fish looks fresh at the market.

Ingredients

1 3-pound whole fish (or the equivalent), such as salmon, trout, snapper, breem, or sea bass (cleaned and scaled)

1 lemon sliced into rounds

1 large bunch fresh thyme

2 large egg whites

5 cups unrefined salt – use something that is not too expensive, as you’ll need a lot. I usually pick up a big bag of coarse Korean Sea Salt from my local Asian market (99 Ranch!)

Good Quality olive oil, for serving

Lemon Wedges, for serving

 

Method

  1. Preheat the oven to 450° F. Wash and dry fish. Open the cavity, fill it with the lemon slices and thyme sprigs, and close it back up and set aside.
  1. In a large bowl whip the egg whites to a light froth (no peaks necessary- just break up the albumen) then fold in salt. The mixture should resemble wet sand. Results may vary with salt type, so add a little water or more salt as necessary.
  1. Pat out the salt in the center of an ovenproof baking platter, about a half-inch thick, and slightly larger than your fish. Place the prepared fish on top, and pack the rest of the salt around and on top, completely sealing in the fish. (Some chefs like to leave the head and tail exposed, but I prefer to sculpt my salt into a fish face.) Place the pan into the preheated oven and bake for 25-30 minutes. The internal temperature for fish varies, and is a matter of personal preference. But in general, aim for around 130° F.
  1. Remove the fish from the oven and cool slightly, then present it at the table, where you can crack open the salt crust with a whack of a spoon. The salt comes off easily, exposing a perfectly cooked whole fish, which can then be divided up among your guests. Serve with simple accompaniment of good olive oil and lemon wedges.

Variations

Citrus Fish – Orange, grapefruit, and lime make a nice filling, separately, or together. For a real citrus punch, layer the outside of the fish with citrus slices as well.

Herbs – Thyme is certainly not your only option. Try fresh lavender, cilantro, sage, mint—anything goes. And consider adding a spice blend, or flavorful condiment to the cavity, like za’atar, furikake, curry, harrisa, or pesto.

Oysters with Mignonette Sauce

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This is my personal favorite way to eat oysters. The name comes from the OG method of peppercorn crushing. It is done with brute strength, pressing down on whole peppercorns with the bottom of a sauté pan. Forget cocktail sauce. This simple, spicy, acidic concoction is, for me, the perfect counterpoint to briny shellfish. I like to make my sauce a few hours ahead, to give the flavors a chance to macerate.

Ingredients

1 teaspoon black peppercorns

½ teaspoon pink peppercorns

1 teaspoon unrefined salt – try Japanese shio, bamboo, flor de sal, something from the American Northwest or Northeast, a smoked salt, or a salt infused with peppercorns, citrus, herbs, fennel, shallots, or red wine.

1 shallot, minced

1 cup good quality red wine vinegar

1 dozen fresh oysters (or more—more is better), shucked, on the half shell

Method

  1. Place peppercorns (black and pink) and salt on a cutting board. Hold a small sauté pan firmly, one hand on the handle, the other on the rim. Press in s a rolling motion over the peppercorns, crushing them roughly. Repeat until all peppercorns are cracked.
  1. Combine peppercorns, salt, shallots, and vinegar in a small a sauce pan and bring to a simmer. Turn off heat and set aside to steep and macerate for at least 1 hour, or overnight.
  1. Shuck the oysters, being careful to keep all the liquid (a.k.a. oyster liquor) in the bottom half of the shell. Nestle shucked oysters into a plate of crushed ice. Keep cold until service. Present shucked oysters with a ramekin of mignonette sauce and a small spoon.   Eat oysters with a generous spoonful of mignonette sauce on top of each one.

Tuna Jerky

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jerkies

This is a fantastic cocktail food. And, of course, because it’s jerky, it’s good on the trail. (Especially if your trail is in Hawaii.) If you are tuna free, this works with any good meaty fish.

Ingredients

2 pounds tuna, snapper, trout, bass, or other firm-fleshed fish, cut into strips about ¼ inch thick

2 cups pineapple, finely chopped (or canned crushed pineapple with the juice)

2 garlic cloves, chopped

1 tablespoons brown sugar

1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper

2 garlic cloves, minced

1 inch piece fresh ginger, peeled and grated

1 teaspoon unrefined salt—try a Hawaiian salt, like Alaea or Black Lava, Japanese shio, Arabian Fleur de Sel, a smoked salt, or a salt infused with roasted garlic, dashi, seaweed, sesame, Szechuan peppercorns, or chile

Method

  1. Toss all ingredients, toss to coat fish, and refrigerate overnight ( at least 12 hours).
  1. Place a wire rack onto a baking sheet, and coat it well with pan spray. Drain off the marinade and arrange the fish on the rack. Cook at 150° F for 2 hours, then turn the temperature down to 130° F (or open the oven door) and continue cooking for another 2-4 hours, until the fish is dry, but not crisp. They should crack when bent, but should not break easily. Cool completely, then store airtight in the refrigerator.

Variations

Dehydrator and Smoker—This jerky dries better in a dehydrator, and has more flavor when made in a smoker. If you have either of those contraptions, by all means, go for it. Follow the manufacture’s instructions, and use the same guidelines for temperature and doneness.

Commercial sauces – The addition of commercial teriyaki or BBQ sauce into your marinade will certainly work. Most contain a lot of sugar, so consider omitting the brown sugar from the recipe.

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