THE GOCHISO GOURMET: Are you worth your weight?

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Gray salt. photo by Ryan Tatsumoto

In salt that is. Many moons ago, salt was just as valuable as gold, hence the expression. In fact, the word we equate with our income, “salary,” is derived from salt. And though, contrary to popular belief that the Romans were paid with salt (they were paid in coins), the word “salad” also is derived from salt, since salt was used to preserve fresh vegetables. And while your internist or cardiologist recommends lowering your daily intake of salt, it is a natural essential element to preserving food.

The Preservative Aspect

As you may recall from basic high school chemistry, water moves from lower to higher concentration until it’s at a state of equilibration. That’s why salted cucumber or eggplant releases little “tears” of moisture. Sometimes salting a product is simply meant to draw out excess moisture, like our friends mentioned above. Generations ago, it was done to preserve food as refrigeration wasn’t available. You see, when moisture is removed from any food, it lowers the water activity (aw) of that food making it inhospitable to microbial growth. The water activity ranges from 1 in pure water to 0 in pure desiccation, with most bacteria requiring a water activity of 0.9 and mold a water activity of 0.8 to thrive. So if you can draw enough moisture out of any food product to drop the water activity to at least 0.75, that food product should be protected from most microorganisms and have a much longer shelf life.

The Culinary Aspect

Salt mills. photo by Ryan Tatsumoto
Salt mills. photo by Ryan Tatsumoto

As you know, the human tongue has salt receptors as one of its basic five flavor sensations, and they are concentrated on either side of the tip of the tongue. So while most of the flavor sensations we detect are actually derived from our sense of smell, we actually do “taste” salt. And at its most basic level, the seasoning we call salt is usually found in a cylindrical cardboard container often labelled as “Morton.” But there are hoards of other salt products that can also flavor your culinary creations.

For starters, I always have at least two different types of smoked sea salt in my refrigerator (to prevent the ambient humidity in Kaneohe from caking my salt mill), a subtle fruit wood smoked salt and a robust hard wood smoked salt. I always reach for these to season various animal proteins along with my smoky Mac-n-Cheese (using several smoked cheeses). I also have a grinder filled with a local product; Ono Hawaiian Seasoning which also contains cracked pepper, ginger and garlic for seafood and pork, as well as another local product, Alaea, or red tinged sea salt, which I use as a general seasoning agent. Since Michael Chiarello of Bottega and NapaStyle fame swears by Gray Salt from the Brittany coast, I have a tin of this salt in my pantry. And as you may already be aware, I’m a big truffle fan, so I also always have a jar of truffled salt in my refrigerator (refrigerated to preserve the delicate truffle aroma). And finally, you can never go wrong with a box of kosher salt in your pantry, as the delicate flakiness not only seasons your creations, but when used as a finishing salt, adds a nice textural crunch to dishes.

And salt isn’t limited to solid forms, as I also consider shoyu as a form of salt, as well as its other Asian cousins, patis from the Philippines, nam pla from Thailand and nuoc mam from Vietnam. As an added bonus, these liquid forms of salt also add that fifth flavor sensation, umami, due to an abundance of naturally occurring glutamic acid. So when seasoning any Asian inspired creation, I usually reach for these liquid forms in place of solid salts.

And don’t limit your seasoning salts just to savory courses. Salt can also enhance desserts and sweets as well. You probably know that salt is also needed in sweetened baked goods to heighten the other flavors in the dish, but flaked salt sprinkled on top of caramel and chocolates also accomplish the same, which gives the palate an immediate hit of salt followed by the sweetness of the candy, thus balancing the flavor sensations on the palate. In fact, one of my favorite desserts isn’t a true dessert at all, but simply a dark chocolate covered caramel enhanced with sprinkled smoked sea salt flakes. I often “smuggle” a small box into restaurants as my “dessert” to savor while my dining companions indulge in traditional desserts as a last course.

I’m not sure where the Mrs. found this recipe but it combines four of the major taste sensations and the sprinkled sea salt balances the other three flavor sensations.

Orange Olive Oil Cake

2 medium oranges

2 and 1/2 C sugar

Non-stick baking spray with flour

2 and 1/2 C flour

2 tsp baking powder

1 tsp baking soda

1 tsp vanilla extract

4 eggs

6 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil 

1/4 C fresh orange juice

1/4 C confectioner’s sugar

Sea salt, for garnish

Trim about 1/2” from the tops and bottoms of oranges; quarter oranges lengthwise. In a medium saucepan, bring several cups of water to a boil then add oranges. Bring water back to a boil; drain then repeat boiling process twice more with fresh water. Put oranges, one cup of sugar, and four cups water into a medium saucepan over medium-high heat. Cook, stirring often, until sugar dissolves and orange rind can be easily pierced with a fork, about 30 minutes. Remove pan from heat and let cool to room temperature.

Heat oven to 350 degrees. Spray a 10-inch round cake pan with non-stick spray then line pan bottom with parchment paper cut to fit. Set pan aside. Whisk together flour, baking powder, and baking soda in a medium bowl and set aside. Remove orange quarters from syrup and put oranges into the bowl of a food processor. Pulse until oranges form a chunky puree, 10 to 12 pulses. Add remaining sugar, flour mixture, vanilla, and eggs and process until incorporated, about two minutes. Add olive oil; process until combined. Pour batter into prepared pan; bake until a toothpick inserted in center comes out clean, 40 to 45 minutes. Let cool for 30 minutes.

In a small bowl, whisk orange juice and confectioner’s sugar to make a thin glaze. Remove cake from pan and transfer to a cake stand or plate. Using a pastry brush, brush orange glaze over top and sides of cake; let cool completely. Garnish cake with salt.

Get Salty

I’m not suggesting that you consume salt with reckless abandon, I’m merely suggesting a creative use for one of mankind’s oldest seasoning agents. And again, it goes well beyond that crystalline substance in the cardboard cylinder. Try flavored salts, smoked salts and liquid salts and you’ll find that though it isn’t worth its weight in gold anymore, it can enhance your dishes to the level of culinary gold.

The Gochiso Gourmet is a column on food, wine and healthy eating. Ryan Tatsumoto is a graduate of both the Univ. of Hawai‘i and UC San Francisco. He is a clinical pharmacist during the day and a budding chef/recipe developer/wine taster at night. He writes from Kane‘ohe, HI and can be reached at gochisogourmet@yahoo.com.

 

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