Archive for June, 2009
I currently own no fewer than a dozen types of salt, and my collection grows every week. I adore salt. I love it on all foods, savory or sweet. I love the sharp, metallic taste of bare crystals on my tongue. I love the variety that salt has to offer: shapes, sizes, colors, flavors. When I come home from work, I make myself a plate of salted olive oil for dipping bread. When I dress my salad, it isn’t complete without a rough crushing of coarse flake salt over the top. When I’m cooking proteins or plants, I choose my salt deliberately, as that single ingredient will affect the final flavor of my dish more than any other.
However, salt has become a hopelessly neglected ingredient in everyday cooking. If you were to ask 100 random people to name as many salts as possible, what do you thin the results would be? I suspect at least 30 people wouldn’t believe that salt comes in more than one form: table salt. Perhaps 70/100 might be able to name Morton’s iodized salt. Maybe 50/80 would mention kosher salt. I’d be surprised if more than 30/100 thought of rock salt (unless they live somewhere snowy or make a lot of ice cream), and I’d be flabbergasted if more than 10/100 conjured up “sea salt”. I have little hope that 1/100 could produce any of the adjectives that adorn my salt jars: alderwood smoked, red Hawaiian, Niçoise olive, cyprus flake, Australian pink, Himalayan (the list continues). It’s these variations that make salt so interesting and exciting to me. Could you imagine living life only eating one type of cheese or drinking one type of wine? I’d rather suffer through daily waterboarding with a Mexican Zinfandel than being relegated to plain table salt for the rest of my life. And in a world where the most obscure artisanal products are only a mouse click away from your doorstep, there’s really no excuse to turn your back on good salt.
In celebration of this wonderful ingredient, Rachel and I hosted a salt-themed dinner party for our gourmet club last weekend. Our mission was two-fold: 1) incorporate, worship and evangelize salt as a basic but richly complex ingredient, and 2) get everyone gleefully drunk (in fairness, #2 applies to every meeting of our gourmet club). We began the evening with a simple introduction to a few of my favorite seasoned salts, plated with olive oil and soft baguette slices. These salts included Chili Verde, Black Truffle, Chardonnay Oak Smoked, and Niçoise olive. The table favorite, in this preparation, was the black truffle salt, which has a pronounced aroma and a very fine grain. I often use only this truffle salt and a little olive oil to season roasted birds, but it’s also great for finishing pastas or sautéed vegetables.
Next, we tried something completely novel but totally fun: salt slab tableside cooking! I ordered a Himalayan salt slab (also available from Sur La Table and Dean & Deluca) which is literally a solid salt brick cut from deposits deep beneath the Himalayan mountains. The slab is a beautiful shade of translucent pink with light veins and a coarse texture. Following some tips I read online, I heated the slab gradually for 30 minutes on my stovetop, then brought it to the table and set it atop a rack (my fondue rack, actually). Unfortunately, we barely got a sizzle, even though the block felt quite hot. About 10 minutes on broil in the toaster oven helped, as did the Sterno fondue flame I lit beneath the brick. (Note: I never read anywhere that you’re supposed to place the salt over a Sterno flame, so if you try it and disaster ensues, tough nuggies. However, it worked pretty well for me, with no obvious resulting structural damage. Plus, the salt conducted the flame’s heat pretty well, giving us 10-15 minutes of usable cook time at the table.)
We seared thin slices of marinated hanger steak with a peanut dipping sauce. Even though the marinade was (intentionally) not very salty, the beef picked up great salt flavor from the brick. If you try this recipe (which I’ll post soon) be aware that the marinade tends to drip off the side of the block, so you may want to take precautions to protect your table and linens. After we ran out of beef, we gave a go at frying an egg on the salt brick. The result was a very salty, but incredibly delicious, umami-flavored egg. Yum! I could get quite used to cooking on the salt block, as everything it touches turns to salty gold.
Next up was the main course: a whole sockeye salmon baked in a crust of Himalayan rock salt. Since the salmon is cooked intact and with the skin on, the resulting flesh doesn’t end up particularly salty. However, because the crust provides an insulating layer that heats the fish evenly and traps steam in, you do end up with tender, succulent fish, plus an awesome presentation. Before entombing the salmon, the salt is mixed with egg whites and a little water to form a slush, not unlike wet sand. As the dish bakes, the salt crust hardens into a tough shell. Once the dish is cooked and rested, you can tap the crust with a kitchen knife (or chisel, if necessary) to remove it in (hopefully) big chunks.
I stuffed the inside of the salmon with lemon slices and oregano, which lent a light fragrance to the baked fish. Once cooked and removed from the salt, we served pieces of the fillet atop fennel and onion confit with a sweet olive jam.
Finally, after seven bottles of wine and two hours of eating, we arrived at dessert – the course I had been waiting for all evening. I served a homemade rosemary and vanilla bean ice cream topped with olive oil and sea salt. The combination of savory flavors with ice cream may sound bizarre, but when these ingredients get together, they make funky, sexy love to my mouth. You can use any salt you like to top this ice cream (I’d recommend a flake sea salt or a gray salt), but be sure to use an olive oil that will compliment the sweetness dessert. I chose Villa Manodori ($24 at DeLaurentis, also available online) , which is mild and thin, but has a distinctly fresh olive taste and a spicy bite as it finishes. My every-day extra virgin olive oil would been a little too thick and greasy, so this dish was a good excuse to spring for a nice bottle.
Throughout the meal, we watered our salty tongues with bites of fresh Tuscan Canteloupe and glasses of light, fruity wines like Sangiovese, Gewurztraminer and Soave. The melon was a surprisingly effective palate cleanser – I’d recommend having it on the table if you plan on throwing your own salt party. And in addition to the wine, offering a glass of Port or Muscat as an accompaniment to your dessert, or a store-bought salted chocolate, helps illuminate how salty flavors can enhance sweet ones.
I feel like we’re at the doorstep of a new renaissance for salt. With artisanal salt makers like SaltWorks and Secret Stash Salts popping up in grocery stores and farmers markets, and products like Himalayan salt blocks appearing in mainstream catalogs, salt has a good shot at grabbing the spotlight. And after 8000 years of cooking with this simple, amazing ingredient, isn’t about time we gave salt the recognition it deserves?
Sous-vide cooking is a method that’s been around since the 70’s, but has just recently gained popularity in the mainstream. In practical terms, it means putting your protein in a plastic bag and cooking it in warm water for longer than normal. The benefit to sous-vide, particularly in this recipe, is that it keeps the structure of your proteins intact – our fish won’t toughen up or fall apart during cooking.
I’m using a chile verde salt from SaltWorks, a gourmet salt company based in Woodinville, Washington. I’ve recently been in a major salt bender and SaltWorks and Secret Stash Sea Salts have been my pushers. You’ll see more on that next week. Flavored salts like these are an excellent way to add flavor without adding additional work.
Makes: sous-per duper dinner for two
Total kitchen time: 30 minutes
- 3/4 – 1lb halibut fillet, skin removed
- 1 tsp. chile verde salt
- 1/2 tsp. freshly ground white pepper
- 1 tsp. olive oil
- 2 sprigs rosemary
- 1 1-gallon zip-top plastic bag
- 1/2 can Kerns Guava Nectar
- Pat the halibut fillet dry and coat all sides with the chile verde salt, white pepper and olive oil.
- Place the fillet in a zip top bag and place a sprig of rosemary (if using) on the top and bottom of the fillet. If you’re lucky enough to own a vacu-seal machine, use it to suck the air out of the bag. For the rest of us (and our pseudo-sous-vide) just try to get as much air as possible out of the bag.
- Fill a large stockpot with warm water over medium-low heat. You’ll want to bring the water to 132°F, but not much hotter. If you paid attention in chemistry class, you’ll know that the water won’t be close to boiling at this temperature.
- Submerge the bottom of the bag in the water, leaving the top above the water line so as not to introduce any accidental leakage. Cook until the halibut feels slightly firm, about 6-8 minutes. You can test the doneness by gently flexing the fillet in the bag. If it flakes easily, it’s done.
- Meanwhile, heat the 1/2 can of guava nectar in a small saucepan over high heat. Boil to reduce the liquid to about 2 tablespoons.
- Remove the fillet from the bag and divide into two servings, discarding the rosemary. Pour the reduced guava glaze over each fillet and serve.
This turned out to be a super easy and excellent dinner. The saltiness and slight kick of the chile verde was an excellent compliment to the sweetness of the guava. My original intent was to bruleé the guava glaze for a crispy exterior, but alas my torch was nowhere to be found. If you’re feeling adventurous, won’t you light this dish on fire and tell me how it turns out?
Update: Jean-François at SousVideCooking.org has an excellent table of cooking times and temperatures for fish, along with other great sous-vide tips. I’ve adjusted this recipe accordingly, since I didn’t have my stopwatch out the first time through. Thanks, Jean-François!
I met Kurt Beecher (you know him as the founder of Beecher’s Cheese) one hot afternoon amid a cluster of food bloggers, all eager to storm an armored truck shaped like a giant pig, parked at the corner of 2nd and Pike. Maximus Minimus, the much anticipated pulled-pork sandwich truck, had opened the day before to mild fanfare, but it was about to be put through its paces and make some unpaid bloggers very happy in the process.
We met at Beecher’s in Pike Place late in the afternoon for a whirlwind tour of the factory. In reality, we walked into the cheese making room in groups of five, stood in one spot and listened to the cheese maker give a well-rehearsed spiel about curds and whey. I’m convinced this “tour” was a thinly veiled excuse to get us in hairnets again, but the air conditioned room was a nice respite from the melting heat outside. Plus, a few cold, moist curd samples made an excellent hold-over snack.
After learning all there is to know about cheese making in 3.5 minutes, we gathered around Kurt as he unromantically recanted how Seattle’s best-known cheese came to be. Kurt is an unassuming, unpretentious and energetic guy – like a soccer dad, or a wilderness park guide – and you wouldn’t know he was an artisanal food mogul just by looking at him (read: no whisk tattoos or chef’s jacket). But he has built perhaps the most recognized and respected brands in Seattle, and Maximus Minimus, his brainchild born from a popular staff meal at Bennett’s, was poised to be a very clever piece of horizontal integration.
The concept is simple: a big, iron-clad truck shaped like a pig that serves 2 varieties of everything – maximus for spicy and minimus for sweet. Throw in some cold drinks, coleslaw, chips, and a vegetarian option so the carrot-huggers don’t file an injunction against public pork vending, and you’ve got great street food.
Kurt scurried us two blocks up to the unmistakable truck which sat heavily on the pavement. By the time I arrived, the line of bloggers was already 20-deep, but moving steadily. Over the din of the truck’s galley kitchen I could overhear two employees taking orders at the front of the line, describing and patiently re-describing the choice between maximus-spicy and minimus-sweet to the giddy pseudo-journalists who were all lucky enough to be getting served after business hours.
When I got to the front, I opted for the minimus since I’m not much of a heat guy. While I waited eagerly for my cardboard tray of food to emerge from the truck’s small window, I observed passers-by, one after another, stop and ask what the truck was. I assume the were led to this corner by the caramel smell of braised pork wafting down the city blocks. But when they arrived, they weren’t quite sure what to make of the big metal hog that looked like it came from another planet… or Freemont. In stunned bewilderment they gathered, standing slack-jawed for a moment, then continuing on, feigning that this was really something they see every day.
When my food emerged, it looked great. In fact, it looked just as I expected, with the exception of the cheese. Given that this was a Beecher’s venture, I assumed that my soft pork sandwich would be oozing with gooey cheese, like an Arby’s melt but made from actual animals instead of recycled volleyballs. The only hint of cheese was a small sprinkling of white flakes, unmelted by the heat of the pork, and unnoticeable in any given bite. Still, the sandwich was good – not orgasmic, tongue-tingling, I’ll-switch-religions-for-this good, but pretty solid. The chips and slaw were a nice touch as well, though the two-handed tray made eating and drinking on the street a little cumbersome.
The drinks were self-serve from two discreet taps sticking out the side of the truck. I didn’t get to try the ginger lemonade, but the hibiscus nectar was unbelievable. It had a strong, rich, floral flavor which I anticipated the moment I saw the iridescent magenta tea start pouring into my cup. Had I been without a straw, I’m pretty sure it would have left a KoolAid-esque mustache above my upper lip. The nectar was a great compliment to the salty tang of the sandwich, and would likely be just the right soothing antidote to the piquant maximus. I guess I’ll have to go back for more.
Even though I won’t be making Maximus Minimus my new official barbecue Mecca, I’m still very glad for its arrival. With the weight of the world on everyone’s shoulders these days, it’s nice to find a little levity during lunch hour. And anyone who serves barbecued pork out of a hogified AirStream clearly cannot take himself that seriously. I hope that street food, and indeed the trailer concept, continues to take hold in Seattle. In high school, the closest thing we had to a cafeteria was the roach coach parked on the sidewalk during recess and lunch to peddle quesadillas and Horchata (I grew up in LA). You knew it arrived by the distant sound of La Cucaracha and the smell of leftover animal bits being mangled into a burrito. Even so, there is a special place in my heart reserved for 4-wheeled food. May I cast my vote now for a bubble tea, salumi and wood-fired pizza van somewhere on the Microsoft campus? Go trucks, go!
Full disclosure: I got free food, but that doesn’t pay for my opinion.