The grownups are playing with their food again.
It used to be about the oil, especially first-cold-press extra-virgin olive oil. Then it was vinegars, some with tarragon sprigs that seemed to be growing inside the bottle.
Now salt has moved to the center of the plate.
“It’s a new trend in high-end dinner party accoutrement,” said Jan Rumberger of Silver Spring Twp., a home cook and entrepreneur who does a lot of entertaining. Jan taught in the wine class at HACC during the fall semester. We got talking about food and wine one night, and he brought up salt.
This week, he invited me over for dinner and sizzled a ribeye steak with ranch fries and petit peas, all unseasoned, served with a Napa Valley Cabernet.
Then he brought out the salts.
The collection was from http://www.NapaStyle.com, and included a smoked salt and some herb-infused salts along with Hawaiian Red, Fleur de Sel and several others. I dropped some Hawaiian Red onto a clump of peas. It lit them up without the overwhelming salinity of table salt.
Then I sprinkled Savory Sundried Tomato Garlic Gray Salt on a piece of steak and inhaled an explosion of flavor. Had some wine and returned to my work.
So it went, and very successfully, salt after selt. Well, the ranch fries didn’t do so well. I think they need to be salted as they’re roasting. But the salts brought out the flavor of the steak and veggies and added a vigorous accent.
Jan suggested that a restaurant presentation of a half-dozen salts — a flight of salts? –with a dinner dish would be a lot of fun.
At Bricco, the teaching restaurant on Second Street, chef instructor Michael Finch takes a different approach to salt presentation.
“We actually do a compound butter that we blend the Peruvian pink salt crystals into, because they’re a large crystal. We’re using that as a finish for grilled or broiled fish. When you chill that down and slice your butter, you’re getting the flavor as well as the color and texture of the salt.”
Salt is a rock we eat. As the Canadian food writer Margaret Visser put it, “Salt is the only rock directly consumed by man. It corrodes but preserves. It desiccates but is wrested from the water. It has fascinated man for thousands of years.”
It’s more fascinating now that NapaStyle, Williams-Sonoma and other gourmet purveyors are putting pretty pictures of pink salt, black salt and red salt all over the web. Salts even made the short list of hot items for 2007 in a survey of American Culinary Federation members, the nation’s top chefs.
Tim Harris, president of the Harrisburg ACF chapter and head of the Culinary Arts program at HACC, said that salt brings a meal into focus by acting on the dish — but also on the diner. Literally, it makes your mouth water.
“People are relating to it as a finishing product because salt activates the glands in your mouth and saliva starts building. Salt pulls it out of the glands.”
The range of gourmet salts is worldwide, from the ancient salt marshes of France to the new Quoddy Mist Sea Salt taken from the Bay of Fundy, which has the greatest tidal range of any body of water on Earth.
Some far-flung salts include:
Hawaiian Sea Salt, baked in red clay both for color and flavor.
Smoked Sea Salt, sometimes done over exotic materials like coconut shells and kaffir lime leaves.
Cyprus Black Lava Flake Salt, salt from the Mediterranean combined with activated charcoal.
And there are dozens of others, with varied pricing. You can find a collection of a half-dozen salts for about $25.
Some other purveyors …
Most are finishing salts. Kosher is the major cooking salt in commercial kitchens.
David Kamen, chef instructor at the Culinary Institute of America, told one interviewer that using sea salts in cooking is a waste. “If you spend a lot of money on a fancy French sea salt and you add it to a pot of soup that’s going to simmer for two hours, it’s going nowhere,” he said.
The one exception is smoked salt, which Harris says is awesome for cooking strong meat.
“To me this is like, barbaric,” he said, handling some smoked, black grains. “You want something that will stand up to this, like a heavy beef or a game meat — venison or elk or a caribou. I’d use it as a dry rub, to cook and melt in the salt.”