A heavyweight in the annals of food history, the tiny little element known as sodium chloride has played a valuable role in culture and societies the world over. Ancient Chinese folklore tells of the discovery of salt, it's been valued by ancient Hebrews and Greeks, used as currency by Romans, and been the subject of countless tales and fables.
Our bodies need it, animals (man included) crave it, plants use it, too. But the pleasures it brings to the palate can't be ignored, either. Salt not only enhances the food we eat (not to mention preserves them), but it also intensifies their flavors, oftentimes suppressing unpleasant flavors like bitterness. It can balance a recipe, make things sweeter, create a contrast and oftentimes tone down something that may be too sweet (cake frosting immediately comes to mind). Without salt things just don't sparkle. Or at least that's how my tongue sees it.
Salt comes from two sources – the land and the sea. Most of the salt on the market today is mined, coming from large deposits left by dried and evaporated salt lakes throughout the world. Table Salt, a refined salt with additives (such as sodium iodine) as well as other ingredients to keep it free flowing, is widely used in cooking and flavoring. Kosher salt, with its additive-free coarse texture, is used by some Jews in the preparation of food and by those who prefer its large texture and crunch. Rock Salt is less refined as other salts, often leaving many impurities behind, not to mention that greyish-blue hue. Sea salt is the result of the evaporation of sea water, a time consuming method used throughout history (and also my personal favorite).
Much to the disappointment of my mother who strived for balance in all things, I am a bona fide big-time Salt Freak. I travel with my own, make sure I keep my stash with me at work, and have enough in my kitchen to preserve a herd of animals. Not satisfied with just one variety, my pantry is full of red salt from Hawaii (the clay from the earth in which its harvested imparts a bright red color), Australian salt harvested from 5 million year old lakebeds, American pacific sea salt smoked over alderwood, Welsh salt harvested from water from the Menai Strait, and Bali sea salt that's smoked over coconut shells and kaffir lime leaves. Not to worry Mom, I'm making sure that I don't enjoy them all at one time.
Below are four of my favorite recipes that feature salt as an integral part of the dish. All are relatively easy, but make sure you use a high quality salt. I think it makes all the difference in the world.Salt-Crusted Rockfish with ArugulaThis recipe comes from Chef Jose Andres. I've substituted trout on a few occasions, it's just as delicious. And anything with arugula (also known as rocket) is a-ok in my book.
1 (3-pound) whole rockfish, scaled, with fins removed (known in Spanish as Besugo)
Leaves from 2 sprigs fresh rosemary
Leaves from 2 sprigs fresh thyme
4 pounds coarse sea salt
Water, as needed
Freshly ground pepper, as needed
Spanish extra-virgin olive oil, as needed
1 pound arugula
Fleur de sel, garnish
Make the Rockfish: Preheat the oven to 450 degrees F. In a bowl, combine the rosemary, thyme, and salt with enough water to form a paste. Spread a layer of the salt paste, about half of it, on the bottom of a baking dish. Place snapper on top of the salt paste. Carefully spread the remaining salt paste over top of the snapper, being careful to cover it completely. Bake fish for 25 minutes.
Meanwhile, make the arugula: Heat a small amount of the olive oil in a skillet over high heat. Quickly saute the arugula until wilted. Sprinkle with salt, to taste, and set aside.
To Serve: Break the salt crust along the sides. Remove the upper crust from the fish taking care to keep the crust whole. (If you break the upper crust or crack into the fish from the top, the fish will turn out salty.) Gently remove the fillets. Arrange the arugula around the edge of the platter and drizzle the fillets with olive oil and season with pepper. Sprinkle fleur de sel over the top.Lemongrass LemonadeEver since discovering this recipe I have a hard time going back to standard lemonade. The addition of the pinch of salt make this drink sparkle.
1 cup sugar
2 stalks lemongrass, bruised slightly with side of knife and cut into 1/2-inch pieces
3 cups water
1 cup fresh lemon juice
1/2 cup fresh lime juice
pinch of sea salt
2 cups ice
1 lemon, thinly slices
In a small saucepan, combine sugar, lemongrass pieces and water; bring to a boil and stir to dissolve sugar. Lower heat and simmer 20 minutes. Remove syrup from heat, let it rest for about an hour. Strain it into a glass pitcher. Just before serving, add the lemon and lime juices and salt to syrup mixture. Stir well and add ice. Garnish with lemon slices.Preserved LemonsIt seems many food bloggers I read are enchanted by this recipe; after I made a few batches I can see why. With its endless uses, this Moroccan recipe is packed with flavor, and the syrup tastes heavenly in a Bloody Mary. Not that I drink them alot. Yea, right.
1/4 cup sea salt (more if needed)
1 cinnamon stick
4-5 coriander seeds
4-5 black peppercorns
1 bay leaf
Quarter the lemons and place them into a large non-reactive bowl. Mash sea salt into the flesh of each piece, releasing a bit of lemon juice. Once you've done this to each piece, layer the mashed lemon pieces into a sterilized mason jar with the other ingredients. Top with extra salt if desired. Once sealed, let the lemons cure in a dark place, turning daily to mix the ingredients. The lemons should be ready to go after 30 days. To use, rinse the lemon under cold water, discarding the pulp and flesh. Preserved lemons will keep for up to one year.Lemon Rosemary SaltTo me this is the perfect condiment. It's lemony, herby, salty and delicious. Great on roasted chicken and a natural on lamb. I dig it on popcorn, too.
2 tablespoons minced fresh rosemary
2 tablespoons very finely minced lemon zest
2 tablespoons sea salt
Freshly ground black pepper
Combine all ingredients thoroughly and enjoy.