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Monday, February 24, 2014

A Case for Salt

And...I am back!!! Although I'd like to say that I was away in a long tropical sojourn at an exotic location, I've physically been experiencing every single snow storm on the East Coast. I've seen it go from picturesque to gross during these impossibly busy months, full of work, projects, hopes and snow days. Overall, I'm thankful, and thrilled to be writing an new entry in the blog again, and starting to see daffodils being sold at the neighborhood bodegas, which every year gives me hope for the spring to arrive.

As you've probably noticed already, I love finding new food items and trends-- especially healthful ones. And although this one is definitely not new--actually it may have been the first culinary step ever taken by the human race-- it's worth to write about. 

I'm talking about salt, which we usually give for granted, but is actually one of the most fascinating food topics. Since early history, this mineral crystals have given origin to conquests, many superstitions (some people refuse to pass the salt from hand to hand, or they toss a pinch of salt over their left shoulder to get rid of bad luck, especially if they've spilled salt!), and to everyone's favorite word: "salary." And we all know that everything in life is easier to assimilate if we "take it with a grain of salt."  But before I lose you more in food idioms, let's go back to the trend: from incredible boutique businesses, such as The Medow in NYC and Portland; to the isles of Costco, the mainstream consumption temple; salts of every color, flake size and bouquet are adorning the shelves. I was recently at Kalustyan's (if you're in the NYC area and consider yourself a food enthusiast of any sort, and you've never stepped a foot inside this food import store, it's definitely worth a visit), and was shocked to see bags and bags of black, gray, pink, brown, pulverized, flaked, smoked, infused and block-shaped salts from France, England, Pakistan, Hawaii... all with lovely foreign names full of apostrophes and squiggly lines above and below the letters. It's not that I hadn't seen the varieties before, but the amounts did impress me: the shelves were covered from floor to ceiling. 

So...are we all into fancy salts? Is it just snobbery or the coolest thing ever?

I know what you might be thinking...."HELLO! high blood pressure..., heart attack..." And yes, there's definitely that, as we've been told over and over about the dangers of an excessive salt consumption. So why am I writing about it here a "healthy" blog, then?

Let's start with Dr. David Brownstein, who argues in his book Salt: The Way to Health, that the first mistake is that "nobody makes a distinction between unrefined and refined salt. They 'lump' all salt together as a bad substance." He states that, "refined salt has had its minerals removed and has been bleached to give it the white appearance that we are accustomed to seeing with salt. It is the fine, white salt that is available at almost any restaurant or grocery store." It's what we know as table salt, and it's "been bleached and exposed to many toxic chemicals in order to get it to its final product. It has aluminum, ferrocyanide, and bleach in it." He believes that "this refining process has made it a toxic, devitalized substance that needs to be avoided." On the other hand, he continues, "unrefined salt has not been put through a harsh chemical process. It contains the natural minerals that were originally part of the product." That's why salts come in different colors, as their mineral content gives them a distinct hue that varies depending on the source where the salt was obtained, either the sea or deep in the Earth. "It is the minerals in unrefined salt that provide all the benefits of this product. The minerals supply the body with over 80 trace elements [magnesium being one of them] needed to maintain and sustain health," he affirms. Unrefined salt has a much lower content of sodium chloride (about 84%, sodium still being a vital electrolyte), while table salt has almost 98%. All those extra minerals alkalize the pH and lower blood pressure, which is exactly the opposite of what table salt does. Interestingly enough, sometimes, when we experience intense salty food cravings, it's our body trying to communicate to us a mineral deficiency in it...

Another issue with refined salt that has been brought up is that the anti-clumping agents added to it to increase its shelf life (which keep salt from absorbing moisture), also interfere with the regulation of hydration in our own bodies when we consume table salt.Our bodies end up retaining water to protect themselves, and our cells release water to help dilute, neutralize, and break down the salt. This loss of water dehydrates and weakens the cells.

It's basically another clear example of refined, overprocessed food, that ends up--just like flour and sugar--looking white, pure, clean and trustworthy, but deprived of nutrients...

Am I suggesting an unrefined salt fest? 

Not really. Moderation is always key, but the QUALITY of our food, even of our salt, should also be a priority (trust me! Fast food restaurants don't add Celtic salt to their French fries!!!). And...good quality salt is the most basic way of turning what we eat from blah... to bliss!  A well seasoned salad can convert anyone into a veggie fan, while if there's no flavor balance nor anything brightening the ingredients, blandness will be unavoidable. 
Oversalting spoils our taste buds, it makes us build up our need for salt and perhaps affects our health, but not salting at all, spoils our appetites!  Did you know that recent findings have suggested that there is no actual benefit to sodium restriction when it comes to preventing heart disease or death? For references, click here and here


Salt is the most essential seasoning and flavor enhancer, and it's also a natural preservative, quite useful in controlling fermentation, as it inhibits the growth of yeast.  But how do we take all that to the next level, turning the simple act of salting a food (of course, with unrefined salt!) into an art?

I asked Alexandra Joseph Rabbani, Executive Chef of Salt of the Earth Bakery to give me a hand with that task. Her company's treats are luscious, rich, sweet (and almost all chocolatey), artisanal concoctions finished with hand picked salts (I'm partial to THE MAYAN brownie...), so what better expert to learn from?
Here's what she taught me, and I'm sure you'll enjoy it as well:

Q: How you decide the right pairing of salt and other flavors? What factors do you take into consideration?

A: There are many factors that play into creating the perfect salty-sweet match. After we create a new baked product, we bring it to one of several "selmelliers" (salt experts) with whom we work to find the ideal pairing. All factors are considered. Most important, of course, is the flavor profile. We always want the salt to shine, but the more important goal is to have the salt accentuate and elevate the other flavors. We don't take [the salt's] place of origin into consideration, but have struck gold several times matching salts and ingredients hailing from the same region. Texture and mouth feel are obviously a very important part of any eating experience, and the unexpected crunch or snap that salt can add to our products is always a welcome surprise.

Q: How do you balance the right amount of salt to bring out the flavors in dessert without over salting?
A: We always make a distinction between "salty" and "saltED". Every one of our products is hand-salted and we are pretty obsessive. We encourage an environment wherein we drive each other crazy about checking salt levels. 
Q:  What are your favorite kinds of salt and why?
A: The "Official Rabbani Family Salt" is definitely Sel Gris de Guerande. It is outstanding on roasted chicken and vegetables. We have large bags of it on our kitchen counter at all times. For my birthday dinner, my husband made me some amazing dry-aged steak and finished it with a sprinkle of the Sel Gris. My mouth still waters when I think of it.  
Q: What do you look for when choosing salts?
A: For me, it is all about bringing out the right flavors in your food. Different salts have different flavor profiles, from clean to briny to minerally to astringent, and you need find the right salt for the job.  
Q: Do you use different kinds of salt for cooking, baking and finishing a product, or do you combine them?

A: While finishing salts may have great flavors, there are a lot of reasons not to use them in your batter. First and foremost, they can get expensive. Second, there's no need to use a flake salt in your pasta e fagiole, because no one will know that was ever a flake once it has dissolved. Here are my general guidelines: 
  • Baking: Fine grained, non-iodized sea salt. I like the Kirkland brand best (available at Costco)
  • General Cooking: Kosher Sea Salt. Alessi makes one, and several are available via SaltWorks.us
  • Finishing: Sel Gris de Guerande (mentioned above) does amazing things to roasted meats and vegetables. Maldon Sea Salt is a favorite for cookies, salads, and and any light dish that would benefit from a crunch and a pop of salt.  Coarse grained sea salt (in a grinder) is the only way you should ever salt your eggs. 
Q: Would you be capable of blind-tasting salts and guessing what kind they are just by flavor? Do you feel the different mineral contents?
A: While I would definitely lose a game of "Name That Salt", I can taste the different characteristics in different samples and I am learning more every day.
For more information on the characteristics of different unrefined salts, check out Salt of the Earth Bakery's salt link here. 
You can also learn more here

In conclusion, when using salt: 
-Use only unrefined salt (the container usually states the place of origin), and make sure that unless salt is infused with herbs or spices, the only ingredient listed is "salt."  
-Bring out your inner selmellier, experiment with different salts, turning it into a meditative tasting experience, find your favorite kinds and think how they affect the food they are combined with.Think of texture, flavor (smoked salt can be awesome!) and try to feel the delicate details.
-Use salt in moderation, as Alexandra Rabbani recommended, your food should be saltED, but NOT salty!
-Consider purchasing a salt sampler set like this one, where you can try different ones without committing to huge containers. 
-Have fun with it, and you can start here:

MALDON SEA SALT INFUSED WITH VANILLA BEAN

The title of this recipe is longer than the recipe itself. My friend Emily brought me back from Paris a tin of vanilla Fleur de Sel more than 10 years ago. I was fascinated. The whole fancy salt, plus sweet spice concept just blew me away! But you don't have to go to France to get a hold of fabulous such combo. It's actually a great use for a used vanilla bean, that has been already scraped. So don't you ever throw those away! I love using the salt on dessert, but it is also stellar sprinkled over salad. 
Ingredients

1/2 cup Maldon salt  (sea salt flakes from England, but feel free to substitute for other flaked sea salt, but not one that is too coarse)
1 "used" vanilla bean (split open and scraped. Use the scraped beans for other recipes)

Method

Place salt in a lidded glass jar.
Cut the vanilla bean into coarse pieces and throw it into the salt.
Cover with a lid and shake to mix.
Let infuse for at least 2 days and for as long as you want.
Use by sprinkling over chocolate desserts, or on any dessert or a salad, just before serving. 

CHOCOLATE-AVOCADO MOUSSE
If you are on a hurry and/or want to eat healthfully, are following a Paleo* lifestyle or if you are vegan, avoiding gluten or dairy, but you still want to satisfy your sweet tooth, this is a recipe for you!

Ingredients
3 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder (preferably raw)
3 tablespoons hot water
2 tablespoons yacon syrup (or pure maple syrup, raw honey, silan or coconut nectar)*, or more to taste
1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1/8 teaspoon unrefined salt
1 ripe avocado (flesh only)
Hemp seeds, optional
Cacao nibs, optional
Sliced or chopped nuts, optional
Pinch of vanilla-infused or plain Maldon sea salt

Method
In a blender, food processor or a deep bowl (if using an immersion blender), dissolve cocoa powder in hot water until all lumps disappear. Let the mixture cool at room temperature (you don't want to cook the avocado!)

Add syrup, vanilla and salt and blend or puree again.

Add in the avocado flesh and process or blend until completely smooth, you don't want any avocado pieces left. However, if you are using a power blender, don't over do it, or the blender will generate heat that will cook the avocado and will change its flavor. Taste for seasoning and adjust, if necessary. 

Scoop mousse into individual serving bowls or wine glasses. Top with hemp, cacao nibs and/or nuts, if using; and sprinkle with Maldon sea salt. 
Serve immediately or refrigerate for up to 5 hours. 

Variations: 
-Potion mousse (before topping it with any ingredients) into ice cube molds, place a small lollipop stick in the middle and freeze. Sprinkle with Maldon salt before serving. 
-Use mousse as cake frosting


Makes 4 serving


*Adjust sweetener according to your specific diet.