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.

 

 

 

 

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.

Gremolata

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This is the world’s easiest condiment. Though traditionally an accompaniment to the Milanese classic Osso Bucco, gremolata can brighten up many dishes. I keep a jar on hand in the fridge, and use it whenever my dinner seems a bit boring. Sprinkle it over seafood, pork, game, t-bones, grilled salads , or bruschetta. I even use it to liven up pizza and pasta. You’ll find this and more in my new 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 )

Makes about 1 cup

Ingredients

2 cups Italian parsley leaves

1 clove garlic

Grated zest of 1 lemon

Pinch black pepper

½ teaspoon unrefined salt- try any sel gris, Fiore di Sal, a smoked salt, or a salt infused with herbs, citrus, peppercorns, caper, anchovy, red wine vinegar, red wine, za’atar, or ash

Method

  1. Combine the parsley leaves, garlic, and zest on a cutting board and mince together into a dry paste. Add the salt and pepper at the end of mincing. Store airtight in the fridge for several days, or freeze for longer storage.

Variations

Regional Differences – There are some common versions of gremolata that include the addition of anchovies, grated Romano cheese, and toasted nuts. Ratios are left up to personal taste, but the general rule is that no one ingredient should overpower any of the others.

Persillade – This is the French version, which is contains no lemon zest—just parsley and garlic. It does, however, sometimes appear with olive oil or vinegar. I’d use a French salt here.

 

Kale Chips

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I know—kale has morphed from the it-food to the hipster joke. But that’s a little unfair. It has been around for a long time, and not just as an ornamental plant. You all know by now that dark greens are the good ones, so lay off the jokes, and make these fantastic chips. They are salty, crisp, and (gasp) healthy. It’s another recipe 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 )

Makes about 4 cups

Ingredients

1 pound curly kale, trimmed and torn into large but manageable bite-sized pieces

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 teaspoon unrefined salt, divided – try Mali, Hana Flake, Alaea, smoked, or a salt infused with fresh herbs, fennel, paprika, seaweed, dashi, tea, sesame

Method

  1. Preheat oven to 350° F. Rinse and drain kale leaves, and pat or spin dry. Place in a large bowl and toss with oil and ½ teaspoon of salt.
  1. Arrange leaves in a single layer on several baking sheets (You’ll probably have to work in batches). Bake for 10-15 minutes, checking at the 5 minute mark to prevent burning (ovens vary—check for your own oven’s hot spot). The leaves should be still green, but browned on the edges. They will crisp a little more after they cool.
  1. As soon as they come out of the oven, sprinkle with the remaining salt. Cool completely, and serve. Store airtight at room temperature for a day or two.

Variations

Veggie Variations – Try this same method to “oven fry” thinly sliced root vegetables, like beets, parsnips, carrots. Use a mandolin to slice thin rounds, or a potato peeler for strips.

 

Quickest Cucumber Pickles

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ICYMI, my new book, Salt: The Essential Guide to Cooking with the Most Important Ingredient in Your Kitchen comes out in just a few weeks. In honor of this momentous event, and because we are in the height of the summer growing season, I thought I’d offer up a couple excerpts that you can use right now. First up, Quick Cucumber Pickles.

If you have a green thumb, you might be experiencing a sudden abundance of cucumbers right about now. These easy pickles are a crisp and salty accompaniment to sandwiches, Asian noodles, barbecue meats, grilled fish, or your standard hot dog. Best of all, they really are quick. Lickety-split!

Ingredients

3-4 pickling cucumbers, cleaned and sliced

1 red onion, sliced

1 tablespoon unrefined sea salt – try French or Arabian Fleur de Sel, Japanese Shio, Korean Sogum, or any one the great smoked salts that are available, such as Pacific Northwest Alder Wood Salt, or Hawaiian Guava Wood Salt.

1 tablespoon sugar

1 tablespoon fresh dill, chopped

1 tablespoon olive oil

Method

  1. Combine cucumbers, onion, salt, and sugar in a bowl. Toss to coat, then refrigerate for 1 hour, tossing every 15 minutes to ensure even curing.
  1. Rinse off the salt, then soak the cucumber and onions in cold water for 10 minutes. Drain, then toss together with dill and olive oil. Serve well chilled. If you like your quick pickles a bit more tangy, finish with a teaspoon of rice vinegar or lemon juice.

Gingerbread Houses (and other structures)

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I have confessed my love for gingerbread many times, but I am not sure if you know about my obsession with gingerbread construction. It is problematic at best.

It started when I was a pastry chef, making centerpieces for the restaurants I worked in. Now our projects represent our summer vacation. Guess where we went this year …
mt rushmore
Don’t feel compelled to go crazy like me. (I once did the Taj Mahal.) Simple houses are fine, too.

The best gingerbread for construction is made with cheap but fragrant materials. I use shortening instead of butter because I don’t plan to eat it. But if you use this recipe for edible gingerbread men, substitute butter for the shortening, and cut the spice quantity in half. Here I have added more spice than I would want to eat (for its room-freshening ability).

INGREDIENTS

1/2 cup vegetable shortening
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup molasses
3-1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 TB. cinnamon
1 TB. ginger
1 tsp. clove
1/2 tsp. kosher salt
1/3 cup water

METHOD

  1. Beat together shortening and sugar until smooth and creamy. Add molasses and mix to incorporate.
  2. Sift together dry ingredients and add them alternately with the water to the molasses mixture .
  3. Divide the dough evenly into thirds, then press each piece between two sheets of parchment paper. Roll with a rolling pin to create an even sheet of dough about 1/4-inch thick. Chill sheets in the fridge or freezer until firm, at least 30 minutes or overnight.
  4. Preheat oven to 350˚F. Place one parchment-packaged sheet of dough on a baking sheet and carefully peel off the top piece of parchment. Cut out the pattern pieces for your structure. To keep them in shape, remove the excess dough around them rather than moving the pieces themselves. Place the parchment paper on a baking sheet. Repeat until you have all the pieces you need. Excess dough can be re-rolled, chilled, and cut as needed.
  5. Bake pieces until slightly puffed and firm, about 15 minutes. Cool completely. Meanwhile, make the Royal Icing ‘glue’.

Royal Icing:
2 egg whites
1 tsp. cream of tartar
1-1/2 to 2 lb. powdered sugar, sifted

In an electric mixer, beat egg whites and cream of tartar to medium peaks. Slowly add in sifted powdered sugar until the icing is thick and holds its shape. (The amount needed will vary with sugar brands, and the moisture content of the egg whites.) Icing can be thinned (if necessary) with a few drops of water.

  1. Assemble the structure on a serving platter or stiff board. Fit a piping bag with a plain tip and fill the bag halfway with royal icing. Pipe a fat strip along the wrong side of the vertical edges of the front of the house. The two side pieces are then butted up against these strips of icing and held in place for 30-60 seconds. Re-enforce the inside joint with a bit more icing. Pipe similar strips on the wrong side of the back of the house, and press the back wall up against the two side pieces. Allow to set and harden for at least 1 hour.
  2. Pipe icing along one side of the roof line, and set one roof piece on top. Allow to set 30-60 minutes. Repeat on the other side of the roof. Again, allow to set 30-60 minutes.
  3. Use remaining icing to decorate your house as you see fit. Glue on candies, make icing icicles, pipe architectural features, or leave it simple and just give it a light dusting of powdered sugar snow.

Salted Figs with Chocolate and Almond

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For such a basic element of food and cooking, I am always surprised how overlooked salt is. Easily the most important addition to any pantry, salt not only flavors food, but also plays a vital role in human existence by regulating the water content in the body. Perhaps the most important salty contribution is its ability to preserve food. It made mankind less dependent on the seasonal availability of food, which led to us wandering from our homes for extended periods of time. Without salt, early civilizations would not have traveled the globe and discovered one another.

Salt can be harvested from sea water or rock deposits left from ancient seas. From the ocean, salt water is dried by the sun in shallow pools. Mined salt (halite), also known as rock salt, grows in isometric crystals and is very hard.

Several types of edible salt are commonly available. Table salt is usually iodized. Potassium iodide is added as a dietary supplement to preventing iodine deficiency, a major cause of goiter and cretinism. Most table salt also has a water-absorbing additive to keep it from clumping, and some countries add fluoride as well.

Many chefs prefer kosher salt, which gets its name from its use in the koshering process of meats. Koshering requires that all fluids be extracted from an animal before it is consumed. The larger crystals dissolve more slowly, extracting more fluids from the meat. Kosher salt has no additives, which gives it a cleaner, less-metallic taste.

Fleur de sel is natural sea salt, hand harvested and gourmet priced. It usually comes from specific locations around the globe, but the most famous (and the first to be hip) comes from the coast of Brittany in France. Each location produces distinct flavors due to the area’s naturally occurring vegetation and minerals. Sea salt removed from the top layer of water is pale and delicate in flavor, while gray sea salt, which is allowed sink and mix with the ocean water, is more robust in flavor.

You can also find black salt, gray salt, pink salt, smoked salt, marsh salt, and even moon salt (harvested at night, not from the moon). You can spend quite a lot of money on salt, but beware: once it’s mixed into foods, the unique character of these specialty salts is easily lost. Reserve their use for recipes that will get it noticed.

Salted Figs with Chocolate and Almonds
This dish makes an exquisite after dinner sweet. Serve it with strong coffee or a glass of port.

INGREDIENTS

2 TB. almonds, toasted and ground
1 (8-oz.) bittersweet chocolate bar, chopped or grated into fine chunks
16 dried black mission figs
2 tsp. fleur de sel or other coarse sea salt

METHOD

  1. Preheat the oven to 350˚F.
  2.  In a small bowl mix together almonds and chocolate.
  3.  Insert your thumb into the bottom of each fig (opposite the stem end) making a pocket. Stuff each fig pocket with almond-chocolate mixture, and set stuffed figs on a baking sheet. Bake at for 10 minutes or until warmed through.
  4.  Place warm figs on a serving platter, sprinkle each with a pinch of salt, and serve immediately.

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