Salt Rifle

When I was growing up, my grandmother taught me never to "divorce the salt and pepper." Even though I thought she was a little eccentric, I was careful to pass both the salt and pepper whenever anyone asked for just one or the other.

Although the reason behind her rule had to do with good table manners, not flavor, it turns out that seasoning protocol is on her side. You should always add salt and pepper to taste, even if the recipe doesn't mention them.

Today, there are many varieties of salt and pepper available that allow each dish to be seasoned just right.

Local salt producer Theresa Barker has just started selling pink wine salt under the name Seesalt. She infuses rock salt with Merlot wine and packages it in a wine bottle. The salt is full-bodied and goes well with fish, chicken and red meats.

Barker is especially keen on brining. Mix two or three tablespoons of her wine salt (or another salt) with a quart of water. Put the liquid in a plastic bag and add the meat. Marinate for one hour. Then cook the meat however you want.

In ancient times, brining preserved meat. Enhanced flavor was a fortuitous side effect. Now that we have refrigerators, flavor is the main reason to brine. It also makes the meat juicier.

You can buy pink wine salt at Vinterra, on 44th Street just north of Camelback, or at several other local wine shops.

Another flavored salt in the Valley is at Restaurant Hapa's sushi bar. The chef makes his own green tea salt.

Salt comes iodized or not, kosher or not, coarse or fine, and with or without additives. Sea salt comes from the Pacific (on a recent salt-shopping trip, I found some from California and New Zealand), from the Atlantic (I found French and British) and from the Mediterranean (Italy and France).

Black salt, which is either gray or purplish-brown, comes from India, and Sindhalu salt comes in a big chunk from Pakistan.

Sour salt is actually made from citrus, and isn't really salt. It tastes like a cross between vinegar and lemon juice.

Pepper comes in almost as many variations as salt. Black, red, green and white peppercorns can be whole or ground, sold individually or in blends, and green peppercorns often come in a can or jar in vinegar or brine.

When you consider all the varieties and then start pairing a salt with a pepper, the taste options seem almost infinite. You don't need to run out and buy 10 kinds of salt and pepper. Two or three salts and three or four peppers will be more than enough to spice up your cooking.

Actually, salt isn't a spice, it's a seasoning. Seasonings enhance the inherent flavors of food. Pepper is a true spice, because it changes the flavor of foods.

Salt's value has been recognized since ancient times. The word "salary" comes from the Latin "salarium," which refers to the salt allotment used as part of a Roman soldier's pay.

Because pepper isn't necessary to sustain life, it's not as important as salt, but it's a close second. It's been used for at least 3,000 years and was responsible for beginning the spice trade. Workers unloading a shipment of pepper had to wear clothes without pockets, because each peppercorn was considered valuable.

Consider using sea salt in your cooking. With many trace elements, sea salt adds more than just saltiness to food. It's richer and easier on the tongue than commercial table salt.

Be sure to check the label. If salt contains additives such as magnesium carbonate or sodium silicoaluminate, it will have a harsher, more chemical taste.

The addition of chemicals to salt began in 1912, when Morton added magnesium carbonate to its product to create the first free-flowing salt. Two years later, the slogan "when it rains it pours" became part of the national vernacular.

Before Morton's discovery, salt was either coarse or tended to be a bit lumpy.

Kosher salt, available in most grocery stores, is a favorite in many professional kitchens. It has no additives, so it has a pure salt taste. It's coarse, so it's easy to add a pinch or two with your fingers.

My new favorite salt is black salt. In India it's called kala namak. I found it at India Bazaar, 933 East University in Tempe.

Black salt is used in Indian cooking as a spice, not as a salt. It has a smoky, complex flavor. It's not nearly as salty as the other salts I sampled. It tastes like buttered movie-theater popcorn.

India Bazaar also sells Sindhalu rock salt. This Pakistani salt, reputed to be an aphrodisiac, is a combination of opaque white and orange stripes. Although it's pretty to look at, it's not unusually flavorful. And it comes in large chunks that aren't very easy to use.

My salt recommendations include Lima brand French Atlantic salt, kosher salt and coarse-grain sea salt that has been sun-dried. Most grocery stores sell one or two of these salts. Whole Foods Market in Tempe sells them all. The Indian black salt is another must.

Pepper offers easier choices than salt. Black, green and white peppercorns are from the same plant.

Black pepper is harvested when green and allowed to dry. Tellicherry pepper is from India and is considered by many chefs to be superior. Malabar Black pepper is a close second.

White pepper comes from mature red peppercorns, but the outer covering is removed. It's a bit less spicy, and is great in light-colored sauces because it doesn't add black specks.

Green peppercorns are picked before maturing and are immediately freeze-dried or preserved in vinegar or brine. They're soft, slightly sour and a bit hot. Pink peppercorns come from a South American rose. They're hot and slightly bitter.

For a well-stocked spice rack, I suggest black Tellicherry peppercorns, a blend of three or four peppercorns (such as black, white and green and/or pink), and green peppercorns in brine. All are available at Whole Foods Market and Cost Plus World Market.

Freshly cracked pepper always tastes better than the pre-ground stuff, so I recommend a pepper mill or a mortar and pestle.

Because salt keeps indefinitely, you can never have too much. An old saying sums things up: "Salt is what makes things taste bad when it isn't in them."

And don't forget to keep your pepper grinder handy. Your food will taste better with both salt and pepper. My grandmother would be pleased.

Contact Andy Broder at his online address: [email protected]

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Andy Broder