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All about salt


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Enjoying great summer produce with sun, sky and salt

If you boil summer down to one of its essential components, its about salt: the salt on your skin from perspiration (which tastes especially good when making love), the salt of the sea after a day at the beach, and, of course, the salt in your food. Salt accentuates tanginess, and that refreshing tang is what we often seek in summer fare. That salty, spicy lift, when combined with a splash of a cool drink, at once revives and relaxes us.

Summer is a time when we gather as families and friends and seek out the sensual heat of the sun to toast our health and good fortune. It falls here, in the southern hemisphere, at the same time as the calendar signifies the Christian festival of Christmas, the nominal birthday of Jesus Christ. This date was, of course, borrowed by Christians, replacing the earlier pagan celebration of Saturnalia. So this time of year has been a focus of good cheer for eons. Unlike the northern hemisphere, however, our climate at this time is not conducive to lashings of roast turkey and pudding; rather it cries out for salad, seafood and skin to be salted and spiced.

Healthwise, salt has gained a bad reputation, not least because its added as a flavour enhancer to just about every packaged food. But if you prepare your own food you have the opportunity to give creatively to those around you and to yourself as well. Dont you want to explore and offer something wonderful in these circumstances?

Salt, or more exactly sodium chloride, is the only rock directly consumed by humankind. Its an essential element in our diets and an important part of digestion, as it increases the hydrochloric acid content of our digestive fluids. Sodium in our blood is one of four ions we must have to survive, the others being magnesium, calcium and potassium. Our body cannot produce sodium, so it must be ingested from external food sources. Its a balancing act, though: too much in relation to fluid levels and we eventually die; too little and the same applies. So we excrete salt through our urine, faeces and sweat when the concentration becomes too great. Sodium also assists with the re-absorption of water in the kidneys, which would otherwise be excreted. Thus salt is an integral part of our biological makeup; in fact, our bodily need for salt links us to this earth and is a clear example of the holistic connection.

With salt being such a bedrock of body health, its easy to understand the numerous literary references to it, in every culture, through the ages. Pythagorus said, Salt is born of the purest of parents: the sun and the sea. This is where we derive our salts, with sea salt being distilled from sea water. Geologists believe all salt deposits were originally formed by the oceans before being covered over time by stratas of rock. Rock salt is mined from deposits that have formed salt domes. Unrefined, its grey in colour and contains many impurities, but these so-called impurities are a source of many other essential minerals.

Covenants in both the Old and New Testamants were often sealed with salt, which is the linguistic origin of the word salvation. In the Catholic church, until Vatican II, a small taste of salt was placed on a babys lips at baptism. Jesus, of course, famously called his disciples the salt of the earth.

Historians record that the earliest known use of salt in China was around 6000BC. A seasonally evaporating salt lake in northern China left crystals that were gathered by the local inhabitants. The Chinese, however, dont as a rule sprinkle salt directly on food; rather its added through the use of various sauces and pastes. This is thought to be due to the great cost of salt in the past. Indeed, salt is probably one of our earliest addictions, with reports of primitive tribal men selling wives and children into slavery in return for salt.

Salt is also the great preserver. Fermenting fish in salt was popular in the ancient world, from the Mediterranean across to Southeast Asia. In China, soybeans were added to ferment with the fish, which was called jiang, and over time they dropped the fish and it became jiangyou or, as we know it, soy sauce.

Soy is a legume that produces beans in 4cm long furry pods. Different varieties produce yellow, green, brown, purple, black or spotted beans and Chinese cuisine makes great distinctions between them and their appropriate culinary uses. Jiangyou is made from yellow beans.

Soy was taken to Japan in the sixth century BC by Chinese Buddhist missionaries and by the 10th century BC the Japanese were making it and calling it shoyu. The process they used to ferment the soybeans in earthen pots is today known as lactic acid fermentation, or pickling. This occurs as the vegetables begin to rot; the sugars break down and produce lactic acid, which acts as a preservative. Without the addition of salt, yeast forms and you get alcohol instead of pickles.

For cooking purposes, salts are graded as follows:

  • Rock salt, which is unrefined, is grey in color and rife with impurities. Some of them are quite important.
  • Table salt, which is ground and refined rock salt and can be fortified with iodine and treated with magnesium carbonate (lime) to prevent clumping.
  • Sea salt, which is distilled from sea water. Unrefined, its called sel gris, or grey salt.
  • Kosher salt, which is refined rock salt with lime.
  • Curing salt, which is 94 per cent salt and six per cent sodium nitrate usually dyed pink to differentiate it from regular salt. Its used for charcuterie items, especially those that are smoked and eaten cold.

Pickled Lemons

Pickled lemons are a marvellous condiment to have handy to add to your cooking or to a finished dish. The complexity of flavour created by a little pickled lemon really intensifies the enjoyment of dishes. Now, this is the ultimate in slow food as it may take up to three months for the lemons to be properly pickled. Youll need a very large jar with a seal-tight closure to hold as many lemons as you can fit, because if you have to wait that long youll want to pickle a lot.

12 medium-sized lemons
2kg rock or sea salt
1 bunch fresh rosemary
1 bunch fresh thyme
2 tbsp coriander seeds
2 tbsp whole black pepper
1 tbsp whole cloves
1 tbsp star anise
1 tbsp cumin seeds

Take each lemon and make two incisions as if to quarter the lemon lengthwise but leave a couple of centimetres so the lemon remains whole. Mix the spices and herbs through the salt before packing the salty mixture around the lemons inside the jar. The lemons should be completely covered by the salt before sealing the jar and storing in a dark place for its lengthy sojourn. You will notice after a few days that the salt leaches out the moisture from the lemons and your jar fills with a brine solution; this leaching takes the bitterness with it. At the conclusion of the pickling time you use the lemon peel, not the flesh, as the flesh is very salty but the pickled peel is piquant and wonderful. I like to add preserved lemon cut finely and curled over fresh cheeses as a canape topping. Its also great in olive marinades or added to fish dishes.

Salt is excellent on the following nibbles:

Kumera Crisps

If you dont have a deep fryer, use a large heavy-based frypan or saucepan with a mix of peanut and olive oils. Peanut oil is good for frying and olive oil is for flavour and health. One medium-sized kumera will make a couple of bowls of crisps. The key here is youll need a certain volume of hot oil to deal with the inherent moisture of the sweet potato. Either hand-slice the kumera or put it through the food processor until you get very fine discs. Youll get better results with at least a litre of oil brought to a good heat, just before smoking. You may like to dry off the sliced kumera with paper towel to reduce the moisture and then test your oil with one disc. When the oil is ready, add in an amount of kumera that the oil is comfortable with. It really is a case of testing the waters (or rather, oil) it will probably take you three lots to get it right. Fry the kumera until brown and crispy then drain on kitchen paper. If youre concerned about excess oil you can remove the excess in a warm oven. Salt liberally with the finest salt you can afford before serving in bowls.

Mediterranean Chilli Popcorn

2 cups popping corn
1 cup olive oil
6 red chillies
6 large cloves garlic
6 sprigs fresh rosemary
salt and black pepper to taste

In a heavy-based large saucepan with a heavy lid, add oil and then popping corn. Add chillies whole, garlic cloves whole and unpeeled, sprigs of rosemary and an initial salt and pepper. Cover with lid and place over a good heat. Things will soon start popping, so keep the lid on. Give the whole saucepan a shake or two so that as much corn as possible is popped. When the pops have died down, open the lid and savour the wonderful aroma of olive, garlic, rosemary and popcorn Add more salt and pepper before serving.

Warmed Kalamata Olives in Infused Oil

Rather than waste any of the wonderful oil used for the kumera crisps, add a little of the still-hot oil to a skillet or frypan. Leave it to cool a little, say five minutes, and chop up a lime, six cloves of garlic and a piece of ginger and add to the warm oil before adding three cups of kalamata olives. Stir through for five minutes and add salt and pepper to taste. Serve on a platter.

Other salty delights

The Thais are great exponents of salty food and one of the simplest delights I enjoyed while in Thailand was the gracious way Thai hosts bring you regular, freshly prepared snacks. Salted fresh pineapple was a favourite and an excellent way to experiment with the many new salts now available in the marketplace. Choose a ripe pineapple by its aroma, cut into bite-sized pieces and sprinkle lightly with a special salt.

Cheeses were also derived from contact with salt, the great preserver. The curdling of milk through exposure to salt is thought to have first occurred when milk was carried in animal skins that had been cured by salt in order to turn them into vessels. This was then found to be a way to preserve a source of nourishment that previously had quickly perished and gone sour.

Fish, however, has been the best-known beneficiary of a partnership with salt. Anchovies, for example, although not as salty today as they were before refrigeration, are a reminder of our salty past. Salted herring contributed to the great wealth accrued by the Dutch as they traded these salty fish around the world.

Even older (4th century BC) is a recipe for Salty Baked Tuna by the Sicilian-born poet and gourmet, Archestratus: Take the tail of the female tuna and Im talking of the large female whose mother city is Byzantium. Then slice it and bake all of it properly, simply sprinkling it lightly with salt and brushing it with oil. Eat the slices hot, dipping them into sharp brine. They are good if you want to eat them dry, like the immortal gods in form and stature. If you serve it sprinkled with vinegar, it will be ruined. Archestratus, The Life of Luxury.

Salads are a delight in summer and still-crunchy greens with the tang of vinaigrette, or crudites dipped in aioli, are worthy of any banquet table.

Fresh Asparagus Spears in Lime & Cashew Mayonnaise

Whole freerange egg or egg yolk mayonnaise with a
teaspoon of Dijon mustard
1 tsp honey
1 tbsp white vinegar
1 tbsp fresh lime juice
½ cup roasted salted cashews
1½ cups olive oil

Freshly ground black pepper and seasalt to taste

Whiz ingredients by hand or in the blender, adding oil in a slow drizzle. Lightly steam or blanch asparagus spears and serve accompanied by tangy mayonnaise.

Fresh Fig & Goats Cheese Salad

Figs are a divine extravagance and for this dish you will need only a few.

3 figs sliced lengthwise into quarters
150g fresh goats cheese
1 cup fresh basil chopped
3 romano tomatoes sliced lengthwise into quarters
Dressing
½ cup extra virgin olive oil
1 tbsp balsamic vinegar
1 tbsp lemon juice
1 tsp finely sliced preserved lemon
sea salt and black pepper to taste

Gently arrange on a platter dobs of the goats cheese amid the figs, tomatoes and basil and lightly dress before serving.

The barbecue and grill hold a special place in my summer kitchen, where, if possible, the blue sky is my ceiling. A marinade is one of the best ways to give great flavour to the food you create.

Tofu Yakitori

2 blocks firm tofu cut into squares or triangles
1 pack wooden skewers soaked in water overnight
Marinade
½ cup soy sauce
½ cup lime juice
2 tbsp mirin or dry sherry
2 tsp grated ginger

Marinate the tofu overnight for the best results and skewer on the sticks. For best results dry the tofu pieces before barbecuing. The sate sauce below is perfect with this dish.

Spicy Sate Sauce

1 tbsp sesame oil
1 tsp peanut or canola oil
1 tbsp finely chopped garlic
1 tbsp grated ginger
1 tsp finely chopped birdseye chilli
3 tbsp brown sugar
150g roasted peanut butter
1 tbsp fish sauce
½ cup soy sauce
3 cups coconut milk

In a heavy-base saucepan heat the oils and add in garlic, ginger and chilli. Saute for five minutes before adding sugar, soy sauce, fish sauce and peanut butter. Stirring constantly as the peanut butter melts, slowly add coconut milk until the mixture has a creamy consistency.

Colourful Mediterranean vegetables take to the grill particularly well with just a great olive oil, lemon juice and salt, of course. Slice pumpkin and eggplant into thin discs. Slice red capsicum into long strips. Lightly oil them, place on the grill and salt them as they cook, turning when ready. Put them on a platter to serve, finish with lemon juice, a splash of soy and a little extra virgin olive oil.

Whole Baked Pink Snapper on the Barbecue

Every banquet table needs a star, and what could be more spectacular than a big fish emerging from a foil tuxedo with the aromas of the Mediterranean?

1 whole pink snapper, cleaned and prepared
1 large ripe peach, stoned and chopped into pieces
1 bunch watercress, washed and destalked
2 tsp preserved lemon, sliced
6 large cloves garlic, thinly sliced
½ cup chopped continental parsley
¼ cup toasted almond flakes
2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
2 tsp special salt of your choice
black pepper to taste

Salt the skin of the fish and fill the cavity with all other ingredients. I like to wrap my fish in an inner layer of greaseproof paper or edible leaves to prevent the skin sticking to the foil. Youll need to secure the fish reasonably firmly in its foil jacket. If you have access to the hot coals of the barbecue, place the well-wrapped fish in the coals. Otherwise, a lighter wrap is fine to cook it on top of the grill. Cooking time will depend on the size of the fish, but it should take at least 40 minutes. If in doubt, check by making a small incision.

Summer fruits are mouthwatering and refreshing

Mangoes, Paw Paw, Lychees, Cherries, Tamarillos
Dress in a little lime juice and serve with double cream whipped through with roasted hazelnuts and some tangy gelato.

Bon appetit!