A Pinch Of The Gourmet

Skip The Expensive Finishing Salts This Grilling Season, And Make Your Own Instead

July 01, 2009|By Laura Vozzella | Laura Vozzella,laura.vozzella@baltsun.com

With a big grilling holiday nearly upon us, home chefs who long ago traded ordinary barbecue sauce for exotic "finishing" salts face an issue that burns brighter than a 60,000-BTU Weber.

Can they still afford that $63-a-pound, hand-harvested sea salt from Cyprus?

It was just the thing for a hunk of grilled protein - last barbecue season, before home values and 401(k)s melted like Morton's in the rain.

Is it back to KC Masterpiece?

Luckily, recession gourmets can have their fancy salts and still have money left over for food. So-called finishing salts - they are sprinkled on meat, fish and vegetables after cooking to complete a dish - can be made at home by grinding inexpensive supermarket sea salt with aromatics such as herbs and edible flowers, garlic and fresh ginger.

Chef Michael Costa of Baltimore's Pazo restaurant recently demonstrated his technique, starting with coarse Baleine-brand sea salt, which sells for about $2.40 a pound.

"It's not necessarily practical [for home cooks] to bake something on a block of Himalayan sea salt, but they can go to the store and get this," he said, motioning to a red cardboard tube of Baleine.

Supermarkets sell lots of inexpensive seasoned salts. Costa admits to having had a thing for Montreal Steak Seasoning, McCormick's blend of salt, pepper and dried garlic, when he was in college. But today, he's not such a fan of anything with "dehydrated" in the ingredients list.

"You lose all the volatile oils in the [drying] process," he said. "It just tastes tired and sad."

It takes just moments to grind salt with something, be it fresh lavender from the backyard or exotic black garlic from Korea. And the taste, Costa said, is far superior to store-bought stuff.

"When you can work with fresh ingredients, the perfumes are much fresher and more immediate," he said. "You have a pretty sophisticated flavor profile with very little effort.

Costa began his demonstration by hefting a mortar and pestle onto the marble Pazo bar that served as his work space. (Though it was only 9 a.m., the kitchen was already too busy preparing dinner for Costa to have guests in there.)

Made of greenish-black Thai granite, the mortar approaches the size of a small satellite dish. It is so heavy that Costa paid more for shipping (about $60 seven years ago) than he did for the mortar and pestle (about $50 today from gourmetsleuth.com). Smaller ones can be had for $20 or less.

Cooks can use an ordinary bowl and any sturdy, blunt instrument. (The bowl of a ladle will do as a pestle, but make sure to press on the bowl, not the handle, which will snap under pressure, Costa warned.) A spice grinder can be used as well, but it will yield a salt that's more finely textured and less aromatic.

Costa made a variety of salts, and his basic method was the same for all. He'd place about half the salt in the mortar, add fresh ingredients, top with the remaining salt and then grind with his pestle until the mixture looked like coarse sand. (The salt goes below and above the other ingredients because the crystals help with the grinding.)

"A circular grinding motion is significantly more effective than the TV-camera-friendly pounding so often seen on the Food Network," he said.

What Costa added to the salts varied widely, but he kept each blend simple. At most, he added three ingredients to the salt.

He ground lemon with salt for use on chicken, fish, asparagus and salad greens. (Zest of limes, oranges or Meyer lemons works as well.)

For beef, he created a salt with black peppercorns and garlic, blanching the clove beforehand in milk to mellow its bite since the seasoning goes on after cooking.

Rosemary, lavender and blanched garlic were married in a salt meant for lamb or artichokes. Costa chopped the rosemary on a cutting board before grinding to make sure the needles broke down, a step he said helps eliminate "that mouth-drying piney finish." He went light on the lavender because Americans tend to associate the perfume with soap.

"It needs to be a very gentle background note," he said. "Using the rosemary and garlic helps with that. This is a really nice technique when you have fresh herbs right out of the garden."

In the most assertive and exotic salt of the day, Costa used fresh ginger and black garlic, an Asian ingredient that's only recently become available in America. Black garlic is created by subjecting conventional bulbs to a high-heat fermentation process, according to blackgarlic.com. The soft, pitch-black cloves that result have a molasses-y, caramelized aroma.

Grilled pork, beef and lamb are good candidates for that salt. A full-flavored fish like salmon - "maybe, maybe" - could handle this pungent mix, Costa said. Sweet potatoes and carrots can stand up to it, he said with more certainty.

While salt is associated with high blood pressure and other health problems, Costa said people should not shy away from finishing salts.

"The amount you would use pales in comparison to processed foods - a few grains," he said.

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