When I think about James Beard’s question, “Where would we be without salt?” I can only imagine a flavorless, hopeless world not unlike the right panel of Hieronymus Bosch’s “The Garden of Earthly Delights” – a miserable existence full of pain and suffering. Maybe that’s a bit dramatic, but I don’t think anyone would disagree that a world without salt would be a rather gloomy one.
OK, I’m sure Bosch is rolling in his grave right now, but I couldn’t resist!
I think one of the most important lessons I will walk away with from culinary school is how to properly season. That sounds simple and I’m sure everyone thinks they know how to season. I did too before I started hearing things from my chefs like, “Did you taste this?”
“I don’t think you did. It needs salt.”
And they were right. I remember when I tasted a tiny piece of carrot that one of my chefs had cooked a l’anglaise – that is, boiling it in heavily salted water until it’s tender, just like you would pasta. I never knew a carrot could taste that incredibly good. Even though it was just a miniscule cube of carrot, it was seasoned so well that all I could taste was the intricate sweetness of that carrot. The salt was in the background, simply enhancing the carrot’s natural flavor. I think it sort of works like coffee; most people think they make good coffee at home, just like most people think their food is well seasoned. But when you taste a really strong, rich cup of coffee, most people will say, “Whoa, that’s too strong.” Then they take another sip and say, “Wow, that’s really good.” It’s the same with well seasoned food. I think most people aren’t used to eating food that is properly seasoned. I can attest it does taste too salty at first, but that quick little shock of surprise fades almost instantly and you realize that it’s actually quite perfect.
Now, I’d like to clarify something. Properly seasoning something does not necessarily require mountains of salt. In fact, using the right kind of salt in a thoughtful manner is more so the case. A few weeks ago, I went to The Meadow, a specialty shop that just opened in the West Village. The owner, Mark Bitterman, recently published an exquisite book called Salted: A Manifesto on the World’s Most Essential Mineral with Recipes.
Mr. Bitterman gave us a wonderful overview of why salt is so important and encouraged us to explore all the seemingly endless varieties of salts. The type of salt used can have a tremendous effect on how food is perceived and enjoyed. When I have some money to spend, I would love to buy one of the beautiful salt blocks that I saw at The Meadow. There is a recipe for cooking eggs and bacon on it in the book!
While I was there, I purchased one of The Meadow starter kits. It is so beautiful and I’ve enjoyed trying out all the different salts.
Here’s what came in the kit, starting in the left column, going down: Molokai Red (course), Kauui Guava Smoked from Hawaii, Maldon. Right column, going down: Black Diamond finishing salt (contains charcoal), Sel Gris from Korea and Fleur de Sel. The Fleur de Sel is especially good sprinkled on top of chocolate chip cookies – nice and salty sweet. Remember to taste and season your dinner tonight!
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