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  Just downstairs from the stunning, Restoration Hardware-esque lobby of the Arctic Club Hotel, Juno is a restaurant struggling to find an identity.  Formerly, it garnered mixed reviews from critics, but was praised for its creativity and use of local, seasonal ingredients.  However, the dining public and Juno never quite met eye-to-eye.

To be fair, I suppose that a hotel restaurant has a natural disadvantage.  When Aunt Gertrude and her three kids come to visit from Oklahoma City, they might count on the hotel menu to offer a burger and fries.  However, given the makeup of the late-20s-early-30s well-dressed bohemians who flock to the Polar Barn just one floor above, it’s in Juno’s interest to serve contemporary, well-executed food with the style and thoughtfulness that Seattlites have come to expect from a high-class downtown restaurant.  Unfortunately, this was not my experience.

When I called a few weeks ahead to make my reservation, I noticed that their menu wasn’t posted online.  The host informed me that the menu was being overhauled, but the new menu was forthcoming.  Restaurants everywhere have been taking a critical look at their menus as the economy has kept more diners at home in recent months, and I believe Juno was doing the same.  Even on the night of my dinner, the new menu wasn’t quite complete; the lunch menu was extended into the dinner hours, but the specials of the night were items that we were told had already been cemented on the new menu.  Unfortunately, that’s where things started to go down hill. 

I tasted two of the three soon-to-be menu additions (the third was a halibut).  First was a grilled New York strip steak served with fingerling potatoes.  That, to me, is the food equivalent of a musician releasing a Christmas Album.  You know it will make money, you know people want it because it’s familiar, but it isn’t very interesting and its certainly not art.  I would have hoped for unique twist on the dish, perhaps rosemary- or truffle-salted potatoes, but alas, the chef appeared to wave the white flag on this one.  Fair enough, maybe that’s just what the market demands.

Next was a quartet of pan-seared scallops served on roasted pears with asparagus (pictured at top).  Unfortunately, I can’t come up with any good excuses for this one.  Although the scallops were cooked well, they were accompanied by sauces that I can only describe as a powdered gravy mix, and a vaguely balsamic powdered gravy mix.  The roasted pear slices contributed almost no flavor to the dish, and the bland asparagus was equally superfluous.  I’m not sure if this dish is still in beta testing, but I can’t seem to figure out why all those things shared the same plate.

chevre cheesecakeThankfully, Dessert was much more up to snuff.  In particular, the almond-crusted goat cheese cheese cake was welcoming both to the eyes and to the palate. 

But, the real standouts of the evening were the drinks!  The cocktail menu, shared between the Polar Bar and Juno, is full of creative, tasty and downright sexy drinks.  Two of my favorites were the Polar Ice and the Hemmingway Mojito (the best Mojito I can remember drinking). 

Even though I was told those dishes are already headed for the full-time dinner menu, it’s totally possible that they might evolve to find some sort of identity along the way.  But, from my experience, Juno doesn’t seem to be striking a balance between fine dining and populist restauranteering.  I do hope the best for Juno – it is a beautiful space, and the dead, white, wealthy founders of the Arctic Club have very high standards.

JUNO on Urbanspoon

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Reading time: 3 min

DSC_0046 
My goal of having 6-pack abs for my honeymoon apparently won’t be met by reducing my intake of foie gras and pork belly alone.  In an effort to trick myself into eating healthier, I’ve been experimenting with other white meats.  Usually, I think turkey is pretty bland.  However, this recipe was so shockingly tasty that it made me forget I was even trying to cook “lite”.  The pungent flavors of the curry and orange marmalade transform plain turkey into a dish I would even serve for company.

Total kitchen time: 1.5 hours
Makes: 2 waists a little smaller

Shopping list:

  • 2 boneless skinless turkey breast halves
  • 1 tbsp. red curry powder
  • 2.5 Oz goat’s cheese (about 1/3 cup finely crumbled)
  • 1/2 cup baby spinach, rinsed and dried
  • 2 tsp. orange marmalade
  • 4 8” pieces of cooking twine
  • kosher salt
  1. Preheat your oven to 375°F and place the top rack in the middle position. Line a baking sheet with foil or a non-slip baking mat.
  2. Working one at a time, place each turkey breast between two sheets of plastic wrap.  Using a meat mallet or the bottom of a heavy skillet, pound the breast until it is uniformly thick.  Be careful not to accidentally rip through the meat.  If you’ve had a long day, this step can be very therapeutic.
  3. Generously salt both sides of the breast.  Then, coat each side with curry powder.  Lay the breast flat-side down and top with 1/2 of the goat cheese, pressing the cheese into the meat to help it stick.  Then, top the goat’s cheese with half of the spinach.
  4. Roll the breast into a log, starting with the narrow end.  Tie the roulade (rolled meat) in two places using lengths of twine.  Repeat for the remaining turkey breast.
  5. Finally, rub the outside of each roulade with 1 tsp. of orange marmalade.  Place on the lined baking sheet and bake for 45-55 minutes, or until a thermometer inserted into the center of the roulade reads 160°F.  Let rest for 5 minutes before serving.

I enjoyed this dish alongside an artichoke with my favorite choke-dip: light mayo and curry powder.  I suppose other healthy options might include a salad, fruit, or a doughnut.  Wait, doughnuts are healthy, right?

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Reading time: 1 min
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