Monday, January 31, 2011

Salt of the Earth: Salt is No Longer an Unpretentious Condiment

There used to be two kinds of salt from which to choose at supermarkets: plain or iodized.    Now shoppers face a number of decisions when buying salt.  Should they stick to the regulars or try sea salt?  If so, what grind? What flavor? Should they buy a box or a grinder?  Is it important that the salt be from the Mediterranean?
These same consumers must also make choices when dining out.  In fact, gourmet restaurants are beginning to employ salt sommeliers to help diners make decisions about which salt to add to their steaks or seafood.  For example, The Anantara Resort in the Maldives’ salt sommelier, Nasrulla, helps guests to choose the right salt to bring out the flavor of their food. 
In Las Vegas, Envy Steakhouse doesn’t have a salt sommelier, but they do instruct their serving staff about which salts choices to bring to the table for their guests’ meat and seafood courses. Common choices at Envy are Alaea Hawaiian Red Clay, Hawaiian Black Lava, and Himalayan Pink Salt.  General Manager, Ryan Wolf comments, “Salish salt, an Alderwood smoked sea salt from the Pacific Northwest, is one of the more desirable picks, but diners also enjoy Murray River, a flake salt from Australia with high mineral content.”  The restaurant sometimes has White Truffle infused sea salt, but Wolf notes, “it is expensive.”
Black Truffle sea salt is used by chefs at Beverly’s in Coeur D’Alene, Idaho, as part of their tenderloin accoutrement tray, and for their signature fries.  They also use smoked sea salt for their Bison Carpaccio, and Fleur de Sel for a number of preparations. 
Beverly’s buys salt from SaltWorks, a Woodinville, Washington, company. SaltWorks sells a five-pound bag of Black Truffle sea salt for $170.  The company, which was founded in 200l, stocks 100 varieties of salt.  While their financial report is private, President Naomi Novotny discusses their very successful business, calling it “one of America’s fastest growing companies,” and noting that when the company began nine years ago, it needed a 1,000 square-foot warehouse for storage.  Today, they have a 70,000 square-foot building to hold four million pounds of salt.
To help perplexed buyers make up their minds about which of the 100 salts to select, SaltWorks lists 15 salts in their online guide:  Coarse Salt, Finishing Salt, Flake Salt, Fleur de Sel, French Sea Salt, Grey Salt, Grinder Salt, Hawaiian Sea Salt, Italian Sea Salt, Kala Namak, Kosher Salt, Organic Salt, Sea Salt, Smoked Sea Salt, and Table Salt.

These 15 categories, however, are just a few of the grains in SaltWorks’ shaker.  A quick look at Smoked Sea Salt shows five different varieties:  Halen Nom Smoked Sea Salt, Maine Smoked Sea Salt, Salish Alderwood Smoked Salt (the one they offer at Envy Restaurant), Bali Coconut & Lime Smoked Salt, and Matiz Mediterraneo.  The more modest Hawaiian Sea Salt offers two choices.  Alaea Sea Salt contains a natural mineral, Alae, which is volcanic baked red clay and is added to the salt for its red color.  Black Hawaiian sea salt, also called Hiwa Kai, gets its color from activated charcoal.
Another black salt, Kala Namak, also called Sanchal, is an unrefined mineral salt from India that has a sulfuric flavor and aroma.  According to SaltWorks’ website, “Vegan chefs have made this salt popular for adding in egg-y flavor to dishes like tofu scrambles.”
Chefs are not the only people interested in new salts.  Major food companies are adding sea salt to their products, hoping to convince consumers that sea salt is tastier or better for them.  Wendy’s new French fries are “Naturally-cut from whole Russet potatoes, cooked skin on, and served up hot and crispy with a sprinkle of sea salt for a taste as real as it gets.”  Campbell’s Soup has a line of 25% less sodium soups, in which it uses “lower sodium natural sea salt, so they taste great!”
The soups may contain less sodium, but this is not necessarily from the use of sea salt.  Katherine Zeratsky, R.D., L.D. of the explains, “The real differences between sea salt and table salt are in their taste, texture, and processing not their chemical makeup…. By weight, sea salt and table salt contain about the same amount of sodium chloride.”
Sea salt, therefore, is not achieving its current popularity because of its health benefits.  Rather, chefs and home cooks alike are buying the salts because they offer new textures and flavors in place of  what was once an unpretentious, common, and cheap condiment.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Rancho de Chimayó

Posole.  Calabacitas.  Bizcochitos.  Sopaipillas.  These words make my mouth water and my spirit hunger for New Mexico, a land whose culture and cuisine embody both Mexican and Pueblo traditions.  The words also bring back fond memories of beautiful Sunday drives to a restaurant located about 25 miles north of Santa Fe, the Rancho de Chimayó.
The landscape on the way to the Rancho de Chimayó is almost worth the trip itself.  It is the stuff of a Georgia O’Keefe painting:  the stark Sangre de Cristo mountains standing sentinel to mesas, rock formations, and a high desert of rusts, browns, and golds.  To contemplate the scenery is to think of art, but it is also to be reminded that the land, the people, and the Rancho de Chimayó are steeped in history and tradition.
The restaurant began as the home of Hermenegildo M. Jaramillo, who built it ca. 1890.  Subsequent generations expanded the original three-room house into a sprawling hacienda.  In 1965, Hermenegildo’s grandson, Autoro and his wife, Florence, turned the 18-acre ranch into a restaurant.
Stepping inside the Rancho de Chimayó is like stepping into the home of a wealthy nineteenth century Hidalgo.  I am enthralled by the thick adobe walls, tiled floors, ceilings of vigas and latillas, corner fireplaces, family portraits, and abundant ristras.  
Yet, however much I love the décor, the food is always my main focus.   I study the menu of traditional New Mexican foods in great depth.  I mentally debate between the Carne Asada and the Sopaipilla Relleno.  I order a Margarita and guacamole and take more time go over descriptions.  Then, because it was my intention since the start, I choose the Chicken Enchiladas with Blue Corn Tortillas and Green Chile as my entre.  I love the nutty flavor of the blue corn tortillas combined with the fire of the green chiles, the sweetness of the tender chicken, and the sharpness of the cheese.  I also like the way they are prepared in New Mexico.
According to Rancho de Chimayó owner Florence Jaramillo, it is traditional to make enchiladas using three layered flat tortillas.  Even though it is a little more complicated to make enchiladas this way, the layering gives the dish an added depth and richness that can only be described as delicioso.
I no longer live in New Mexico, so Sunday drives to Chimayó are not a possibility.  Thanks to Florence Jaramillo, however, who gave me her family recipes, I can make the enchiladas at home.  And, as I cut into the cheesy layers, inhale the fragrance of the smoky green chile, and savor a bite of blue corn tortillas, I feel once again that I am in the Land of Enchantment.

Chicken Enchiladas with Blue Corn Tortillas and Green Chile
Makes 1 serving

3 5-inch blue corn tortillas
Oil, preferably canola or corn, to a depth of 1 inch
¼ cup finely shredded poached chicken breast
1 teaspoon minced white onion
½ cup Vegetarian Green Chile Sauce (recipe follows)
¼ cup cheddar cheese

Arrange several layers of paper towels near the stove.  Pour the oil into a skillet at least 6 inches in diameter.  Heat the oil until it ripples.
            With tongs, dip each tortilla into the hot oil.  In a matter of seconds, the tortilla will become limp.  Remove it immediately and drain it on the paper towels.  If you don’t act quickly enough, the tortilla will become crisp.  Repeat the process with the rest of the tortillas.
            Warm the chile sauce and the chicken.  To layer the ingredients, top the first tortilla with half of the chicken and onion, and one-third of the chile sauce and cheese.  Repeat for the second layer.  Top the stack with the third tortilla, then add the remaining chile sauce and sprinkle cheese over all.  Run the enchilada under a broiler until the cheese melts.  Serve piping hot.

Vegetarian Green Chile Sauce
Makes approximately 5 cups

4 cups water
2 cups chopped, roasted green chile
1 cup crushed tomatoes
1 tablespoon diced onion
1 teaspoon garlic salt--add to taste
1 teaspoon vegetable base or use 4 cups vegetable stock
3 tablespoons corn starch dissolved in cool water

Combine all ingredients in stock pot except for corn starch.  Bring to a boil over medium heat and cook for about 15 minutes.

Dissolve starch in about 1/4 cup water and pour into sauce, bringing to a boil.  The sauce should thicken lightly as it boils and your sauce is ready to serve. 

Don't Call Me a Foodie

I eschew the word “Foodie.”  For some time now, I have heard the term used to loosely describe people who are interested in food.  I’m interested in food, but I still don’t like the word.  I don’t know if it is the diminutive nature of the word, or that it sometimes seems pretentious. 
For example, last Christmas my husband and I were at a dinner party where most of the guests were bragging about their culinary adventures.  A gentleman in his seventies was discussing his best method for making cheesecake in a self-deprecating sort of way.  While the cake looked beautiful, he claimed that it wasn’t quite right.  Personally, I was impressed that he had made the cake at all.
Then the hostess introduced us to her Foodie friend, a woman wearing a red and white Christmas vest with matching candy cane earrings.  The Foodie enlightened the group about how she macerated the cherries in her pie, and felt like it was her best effort to date.  I had the impression that she spent a lot of time making cherry pies.  This would have been great if her cooking matched her claims.  The pie was cloyingly sweet, and I didn’t know what to do with the rest of my serving.  They didn’t have a dog.
While I don’t consider myself a Foodie, I do love to cook, and to read cookbooks, and memoirs, and novels that involve food.  I like cooking because it involves creativity and gives me a sense of accomplishment.  Cooking brings joy to my senses:  it is beautiful to look at, to smell, to touch, and especially to taste.  Cooking makes me feel like a good human being, especially when I share it with others.
What should you call me, then? If you must, I guess a “Cooky” might do.  Just don’t spell it with a K.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Las Caletas

One of the great things about food is the memories it evokes.  I am making paella, and my mind is jumping back to a trip I took several years ago with my daughter, Jenny.
We met in Puerto Vallarata on a sultry July day.  I flew in from Las Vegas; Jenny, from Denver.  After making our way through the throng of time-share hawkers, we arrived at our own venue, which was astonishingly beautiful.  The reservation desk was in a large open-air room and halls led to manicured green lawns and pathways that took guests to restaurants, stores, pools, and the beach.
After a welcoming Margarita, we studied the tour options that Jenny had carefully researched.  I opted out of the jungle zip line, but was enthusiastic about the trip to Las Caletas, which promised a boat ride to a private cove, snorkeling, a jungle hike, and a paella cooking lesson.
When we arrived at the private cove that was once the home of John Huston, we learned how to put on our snorkeling equipment and to walk backwards into the water, which was easier said than done.  I’ve always been leery of swimming in the ocean.  I just don’t like the idea of things I can’t see—like jelly fish and sharks—lurking somewhere near my legs.  But to my surprise, I loved snorkeling.  Even when I saw an eel on the ocean floor, I was delighted by its beauty and not at all worried by its proximity. 
After the snorkeling lesson, we headed to an outdoor kitchen that was composed of several brick charcoal barbecues.  Here we were handed a recipe for seafood paella.  I don’t know why I had a pen in my beach bag, but I did, and as I stood there in my swimsuit and shorts, I began to take meticulous, graduate-school-type notes as our guide described the ingredients and techniques for the paella.  Even though I had made paella for years before this, I learned several really important things that day.  One is to use the ingredients at hand.  Our guide pointed to the ocean as he said this.  Well, there isn’t an ocean in Las Vegas, so I interpreted this to mean what was readily available at my supermarket.  (This is important because in the past, I have literally driven myself crazy running from one store to another to find the exact ingredients called for in a paella recipe.)
The second thing I learned was to cook it in one pan as the Spaniards surely did when they prepared the dish.  I sighed with relief when I learned this.  I had been using a recipe that make the dish in multiple steps and involved a lot of labor.  This new technique set me free.
The third thing I learned was to use parboiled rice.  It doesn’t stick, so it gives good results every time
When the cooking lesson ended, I put my notes in my beach bag, and we headed into the jungle for a nature hike.  We learned about the flora and the birds and viewed a magnificent orchid garden.  Then, we went to a center where we could touch parrots and monkeys.  I literally had a monkey on my back that day.
After the hike, we went back to camp.  The smell of paella with its unique aroma of saffron, rice, onions, peppers, tomatoes, and seafood greeted us.  As I lifted the first bite to my mouth, I decided it was truly a day in paradise, a perfect combination of scenery, food, and family, the stuff memories are made of.

The following is my adaptation of the recipe from Las Caletas.  You can get the original recipe at

Seafood Paella

3 ¾ C. hot water
1 chicken bouillon cube
3 T. olive oil
1 yellow onion, chopped
1 green pepper, chopped
2 garlic cloves, minced
2 C. parboiled white rice
2-4 tomatoes, chopped
½ lb. bay scallops
½ lb. squid rings
½ lb. monk fish or other white fish
1 pinch saffron, softened in ¼ C. hot water
1 C. fresh or frozen peas, defrosted
½ lb. medium shrimp—defrosted raw peeled and deveined with tails on
12-15 mussels

Dissolve the bouillon cube in the hot water. Heat the olive oil in a large, deep frying pan or paella pan on medium-high. Add the onion, peppers and garlic, and cook until the onions are translucent. Stir in the rice and brown slightly.  Add the tomatoes, scallops, squid, and monk fish and stir. Next, add the saffron and its water, the 3 ¾ C of water, the bouillon cube and the peas.  Stir well.  Place the shrimp and mussels into the top of the rice mixture.  Reduce heat.  Cover with a lid or foil and simmer until most of the liquid is absorbed and the rice is tender (approximately 30 minutes).  Discard any mussels that do not open and serve from the pan.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Molto Mario’s Farmers’ Market: Iron Chef Helps Las Vegas Find Sustainable Agriculture

Las Vegas has taken the trend for fresh farm produce to a new level.  While cities across the nation are opening weekend farmers’ markets in parks or town centers, Las Vegas is hosting a farmers’ market in a warehouse leased by Mario Batali.  Dubbed Molto Vegas Farmers’ Market, the warehouse opens every Thursday from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m.   It is located just a block away from the Strip, and it was created to support sustainable agriculture.
According to Doug Taylor, chef for Batali, who appears on a YouTube production about the market, it began first for chefs, but later opened to the public. The market serves about 200 people a week and offers fresh fruit and produce from farms located within a 150-mile radius of Las Vegas including North Las Vegas (apples), southern Utah, southern California, and Arizona. 
Shoppers choose from crates that are staked near boxes containing stored items from Batali’s three Vegas restaurants:  Enoteca San Marco, Carnevino, and B&B Ristorante.  The warehouse also houses freezers for Batali’s famous dry-aged beef.
In a city whose summer temperatures often reach 115, an indoor, air-conditioned Farmers’ Market is the perfect solution for those cooks who want to have naturally grown, farm-fresh products.