"You want what for Christmas?"
My mom says this every year. And every year my request is the same - salt.
I love salt in every incarnation -- the weirder the better, whether it's pink, blue, black, smoked, or infused.
Salt can turn the blandest dish into something special. It's also a savory souvenir, since just about every part of the world produces some manner of salt. Thanks to terroir (the idea that the elements where something is grown or produced affect the flavor), the sparkly salt crystals pick up the essence of where they're from. So cooking is a banquet of memories and homage to culinary adventures.
To keep track of my collection, I've devised a system for ordering and using them:
The daily task masters: Two large-sized crystal varieties of sea salt (Spanish and Italian) for salting pasta water, and kosher salt, the little black dress of salts, due its versatility and ability to kick up every dish a notch. These work for every day cooking, and add a nice base salt flavor to enhance what I brought home from the farmers market.
Salts from Hawaii: These get their own category because I stocked up on a recent trip. There's regular sea salt, two flavored sea salts, garlic (pictured, in the yellow dish) and hot pepper (in the red dish), as well as red sea salt (perfect for long, slow cooking -- braises, stews, and anything in the crockpot).
Finishing salts: I love these guys. Each one imparts a specific flavor, either from its extra earthy mineral content (black, pink Australian, Himalayan), from additional infusions (like citrus), or from cooking techniques (like smoking). The smoked sea salt smells like camping and tastes like the countryside. Finishing salts are meant to be sprinkled on the top of the dishes just before they are served for an extra kick of flavor. Smoked sea salt on fresh mozzarella is a great combonation. The black salt stands out on the creamy white cheese, and adds a smoky bite to the flavor.
Vanity Salts: These are my extra exotic and special ones. The Bordeaux salt came from St. Emillion, in Bordeaux, France. It's rich, heady, and gorgeously colored -- an envy inducing show-stopper. The other? It's more precious than gold. It's Iranian blue sea salt, and yes, it is flecked with blue minerals. It's subtly flavored, strikingly beautiful, and due to our trade embargo with Iran, it's practically contraband.
When I think that perhaps I'm the only crazed salt-o-phile on earth, I turn to Mark Bitterman's blog, www.saltnews.com. With recipes, articles extolling the virtues of unique salts, great photos, and a guide for a 25 day salt tasting tour through Europe, there's enough information to satiate seasoned salt fanatics and starters alike.
And if you'd like to expand your palate and salt collection, come back tomorrow for part 2, and get the inside track for local spots with the best selection, prices, and newest trends in cooking with salt.