Tuesday, June 20, 2006

It’s not just black and white

Some people think I am nuts, but I place huge importance on the quality of the seasoning I use in my food. I prefer to grow my own herbs, and if possible I grind my spices myself just before I need to cook with them. They just taste better, and keep stronger flavors that way.

So when seasoning, like most people I use salt and pepper the most. After having been parted from my sea salt flakes for a week, I realized just what a difference the specific salt and pepper makes to the taste of the food, so I thought I would share my thoughts.

We’ll start with the salt. This seems to be a hot topic today; I woke up to BBC news saying “Salt is killing our kids…”. So I started looking at my salt boxes, and tried to look into the health issues surrounding them. Jozo (my chosen brand) make no efforts to cover up the health issues surrounding salt, one of the main navigation entries is called “Salt and your health”.

But health is not really the point of this article, I am interested in flavor. What I missed in the last week was the crucial little something which comes with the sea salt flakes that I normally use. They really add a zing and a crunch to my food. Sprinkled on salads with a drizzle of olive oil, balsamic vinegar and grind or two of pepper brings the salad alive. This just doesn’t work with regular table salt, it just tastes salty.

So I got thinking about how I use the salt, and I have really changed my habits over the years. I almost never add salt when I am cooking; I just add it at the end or when I server. I guess it was instinct which made me change my methods, because until today I have never read about the science of using salt. I found a great article about using different types of gourmet salt. There is a fantastic quote which sums up my whole feeling on the issue

“Flavor is not only taste, smell and texture. Wolke added a fourth dimension, time. The difference in taste between sea salt and table salt is a matter of texture and time.”

It seems that chemically, the structure of sea salt flakes makes them dissolve a lot more quickly in liquids; as such you loose the flavor very quickly (which makes a more powerful zing!). Whereas table salt breaks down so slowly that it tastes harsh in your mouth when sprinkled on a salad.

I still use table salt when I am baking (which happens very rarely), but I use two kinds of sea salt in my day to day food preparation. I use the flakes sprinkled on my food at serving time, and just the process of crushing the little pyramid crystals and flakes between my fingers brings a little giggle of joy to me. I also use coarse grains for salmon dish I learnt from my late wife (which turns out to be called ‘Saumon a l'unilateral’, and not a traditional Swedish dish at all). It really is the tastiest way to prepare a side of salmon that I know. Just take a fillet of salmon (with or without skin, up to you). Cover the base of an appropriate sized baking pan with coarse sea salt about 1cm deep, put the salmon flesh side down on the salt, and bake in a hot oven until done. The result is that some of the juices run into the salt turning it into a solid cake of salt, and the salmon ends up as a beautiful firm, flavorful and moist piece of fish. The fillet can be lifted off its salty bed, leaving all the salt in the pan. It really feels and looks like a weird thing to do, and seems like a complete waste of salt, but it really is worth a try. Go for it, it’s really not as salty as it looks.

So now for the pepper. I think the thing that scares me most if I go to dinner at someone’s house, is a clogged up pepper shaker filled with white pepper standing on the table begging me to add its flavor to my upcoming meal. If you ask me that stuff is only good for stopping cats from crapping in you garden.

Like salt, I have two methods of getting pepper in my food. I have an over the top 20” white Peugeot pepper mill, which if I am honest looks ridiculous on a small table, but it is so much fun grinding pepper over a bowl of leek and potato soup. I learnt today that Peugeot invented the pepper mill in 1842. My mill has a 20 year guarantee, and delivers some of the best sized ground pepper I have tasted. I really understand why you see these big mills in restaurants around the world.

But even the Peugeot is not my favorite way to get pepper on my plate, I now keep a pestle and mortar by my stove and on the table at all times, filled with a mix of peppercorns. The mix of colors is mostly cosmetic, but the subtle flavors of the green and pink corns add a distinct colorful touch to a plate of food. I just grind the corns when I need them and sprinkle them on the food. The result is a very uneven crushed pepper with some big black chunks which deliver a powerful punch to the taste buds in random bites of food.

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