table

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.

salts on a platter

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. 

george and rachel

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.) 

seared beef on salt slab

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. 

salt baked salmo

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. 

rosemary ice cream

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. 

Recipe: Rosemary, Olive Oil and Sea Salt Sundae

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?

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Reading time: 6 min

seared scallops with tropical salsa 
I’m still on my healthy eating kick to get in shape for the summer, but refuse to resign myself to just baked chicken breasts and steamed broccoli.  This recipe was exactly what I needed tonight – something that involves a little bit of real cooking, fresh seafood, and a ton of flavor.  I will have to keep this one in mind for the upcoming summer evenings.

Makes: Awesome dinner for 2
Total kitchen time: 45 minutes

Shopping list:

Scallops:

  • 4 large, or 10 small, sea scallops
  • 2 tbsp. safflower oil (or peanut oil, but don’t use olive oil)

Salsa:

  • 1 medium shallot
  • 1/4 cup pineapple, finely diced
  • 1 tbsp. freshly grated ginger (substitute 1/2 tsp. ground ginger, only if you must)
  • 1 tbsp. lemongrass, finely chopped
  • 1 tsp. cilantro, finely chopped
  • 1 tsp. honey
  • 1 tsp. apple cider vinegar
  • 1/2 tsp. sesame seeds
  • 1/8 tsp. red pepper flakes
  • 1 tsp. + 1 tbsp. extra virgin olive oil (use the best you’ve got)

Optional side: 1/2 lb. french beans

  1. Peel the shallot and slice crosswise into thin discs, about 3mm thick.  Place the sliced shallot, 1 tsp. of olive oil and a pinch of salt in a small skillet and bring to medium heat.  Cook the shallot for 5-7 minutes until it has softened, but has not browned.  Remove from heat.
  2. In a small bowl, combine the cooked shallot and the rest of the ingredients for the salsa.  Whisk together with a fork and adjust to taste by adding more honey, vinegar or salt.
  3. Wash, trim and steam the french beans.  Remove them from the heat before they’re done cooking (still a little crispy) and run them under cold water to halt the cooking process.  Set aside to dry.
  4. Meanwhile, heat the safflower oil in a large, heavy-bottomed skillet over high heat.  I highly recommend you use a cast iron skillet, both for its heat retention and for its natural non-stick nature.   Bring the oil just below its smoking point – you should see light whisps of smoke, but not much more than that.
  5. Ensure the surface of each scallop is as dry as possible to encourage browning.  Place the scallops in the pan, leaving plenty of space between each one.  Don’t touch them for 60 seconds – they’re busy forming a golden crust and if you move them, you risk tearing it away.  After 60 seconds, lift the edge of one of the scallops to check for brownness.  If it is golden brown, flip it over and give it another 90 seconds.  If not, let it sit for another 30 seconds.  Cooked scallops can still be translucent in the middle, but cook them to a doneness you’re comfortable with.
  6. Remove the scallops from the pan and turn of the heat.  Toss in the french beans and let them sizzle for about a minute, soaking up the great flavor the scallops have left behind.
  7. To plate, lay down a pile of beans and divide the scallops between two plates.  Top with the salsa mixture, and a little extra sesame seeds, if you so desire.

If scallops aren’t your thing, try this recipe with jumbo prawns, calamari, or even grilled octopus!  I can’t wait to bring a batch of that salsa to the next cookout and discover what else I can top it on.

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View Barrio Restaurant

I just returned from the most wonderful brunch – the kind of meal that has me floating on a chorizo bacon flavored cloud all day long.  Barrio (Capitol Hill, Bellevue) just launched a weekend brunch menu, and it’s nothing short of fabulous.  In addition to a few soon-to-be classic dishes (which we’ll get to in a minute), Barrio’s brunch offers an excellent selection of signature cocktails to kick off your morning. 

bees knees

I tried The Bee’s Knees ($8, pictured left) which is a delightful mixture of gin, fireweed honey and lemon.  Honestly, I could have put back a whole pitcher of this cool, delicious cocktail.  An unusual but welcome item on the cocktail menu, El Borracho ($9), consists of a can of Olympia beer, a shot of tequila, and a hot sauce chaser.  I suppose if you really need to erase the night before, it’ll do the trick.

But, it was the food at Barrio’s brunch that really blew me away.  To start, we sampled a selection of conchas (mexican sweet buns) served with whipped butter.  Then we snacked on a duo of salsas ($7), which allowed us to choose 2 out of 6 different generously-portioned salsas served alongside corn chips.  Since I’m not much of a fire-breather, I opted for the roasted tomatillo serrano salsa and the grape tomato salsa.  Both were richly fresh, with surprisingly complex flavors.  They made me sad to think I had ever wasted time eating salsa from a jar, ever

Chilaquiles with pork and apples Once I realized what a treat I was in for, I decided to leave my main dish order in the very capable hands of our server.  Reading the innocuous menu descriptions, like “Chilaquiles del Dia – tortilla casserole of the day,” vastly understated the caliber of thought and craftsmanship that clearly went into each dish.  This morning’s “casserole” was a crunchy, slightly sweet mixture of shredded pork, apples and tortillas, topped with a pair of perfectly cooked eggs and sprinkle of cotija cheese ($10, pictured right).  Each bite was heavenly, and only improved by adding a dash of house-made hot sauce, coarse salt and a squeeze of fresh lime. Other must-orders include the cantina potatoes ($3) and the housemade chorizo bacon($3, amazing!).

awesome ice cubes

Overall, I was really struck by the superb quality with which Barrio executed brunch.  From the clearly passionate kitchen staff, to the professional wait staff, to the bartender, everyone there exuded a commitment to the art of a great dining experience.  And nothing speaks louder to Barrio’s commitment to detail than the picture on the left.  It’s just a glass of water, but if you look closely, you’ll notice that it contains perfectly clear, perfectly square ice cubes.  As it turns out, Barrio is one of only two establishments in Washington that uses a state-of-the-art ice maker to produce perfect cubes with a slower melt rate so your drinks aren’t diluted after 5 minutes on the table (the other place that uses this machine is Vessel).  It’s a small but telling touch: Barrio isn’t messing around!  And with a brunch that, in my opinion, eclipses Peso’s Kitchen, I would make your reservations while you still can.  This is the new it spot for weekend mornings!

Barrio on Urbanspoon

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Reading time: 2 min
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