The amazing world of artisan salts
Until recently salt was just salt, you know, old ho hum white table salt, but lately salt has become very very interesting! It comes in lots of colors, textures and flavors almost like Jelly Belly beans. (Well, not quite) Artisan salts add a different and complex element to your dishes that is a revelation! Of course, the French have known about these salts all along and we are just catching up. I guess better late than never.
The French have been making artisan salts since the 9th century. Their crown jewel, “Fleur de Sel” is made off the coast of Brittany in the reveled countryside of Guérande. The master salt farmers, called paludiers, have been farming their salt by hand for centuries. It is considered the fruit of the sea, unrefined, unbleached and of very high quality, it is precious to the French right along with their cheeses and wine. (And bread and mushrooms and fish and…)
When I first heard of this high priced and respected salt a few years back, I had to have some. It arrived in the mail, in a lovely little package, still looking much like, well, salt, except it was flakier. It happened to be summer and I had some home grown tomatoes, so I sliced one up, sprinkled a bit of these luminescent salt flakes on it and oh là là! It was a true revelation to the taste. A simple thing like a fine salt transformed that humble tomato into a symphony in my mouth.
After that I begin to search the world over for interesting salts and ended up in our own front yard. Portland happens to contain, “The Meadow” which is a nationally recognized Artisan salt store. (Not to mention fine chocolate store too! He he) Well, that was way easier than a trip to France and it was right down the street from my daughter’s house. Off I went and saw more salt than I ever imagined, all colors of the rainbow.
There is black volcanic salt, red Hawaiian sea salt, Sel de Gris, (gray salt from France), Himalayan pink salt, bamboo leaf green salt, brown chocolate fleur de sel, alder smoked salt, light yellow “fleur de hell” (made from the world’s hottest ghost pepper) and the lovely purple pinot noir salt. Like an obsessive compulsive Labrador, I tried as many as I could, and brought a bunch home too. After lots and lots of experiments, I have condensed this very curious and tasty culinary world down to some simple tips.
First off Fleur de sel goes on everything and makes it much better. So if you want to start with the cream de la cream, it won’t fail you. A nice and cheap substitution for it is Maldon sea salt flakes, which is an excellent salt to have in the cupboard for general use. (A French person would faint here) All the chefs are into the Maldon flaked salt or kosher salt right now.
Second off, experiment for yourself. You cannot ruin any dish with a fine salt, only add to it. (As long as you don’t overdo it.) I have found that the coarser salts, like the Hawaiian red salt, are amazing in dishes like soups, where “finishing salts” like the smoked salts are best sprinkled on a dish right before serving. Do yourself a grand favor and go and poke about “The Meadow” in Portland or order one of their starter kits on line to try their different and delicious salts. A great blog to read more on all types of salt that is written by the owner of “The Meadow”, Mark Bitterman is here. A whole new world is waiting for you!
This recipe for crispy sweet potato fries that I am sharing with you it an excellent medium to dispense any fine salt for tasting. I am so thrilled to finally find a way to have crunchy sweet potato fries without the deep fat fryer. The hubby and I couldn’t stop eating them when they got out of the oven. (Dipped in my homemade mayo, of course) Bon Appétit!
Crispy sweet potato oven fries
2 large sweet potatoes with red flesh
2-3 tablespoons of cornstarch or arrowroot powder (for gluten and grain free)
3-4 tablespoons of olive oil
1-2 teaspoons of any fine salt, flaked or fine but not coarse
Sprinkle of paprika or cayenne, if you dare
Cut up those beautiful beta carotene rich sweet potatoes into a reasonable French fry shape, trying your best to make them around the same size, no thicker than a 1/2 inch. Soak them in water for at least one hour, preferably for more like 3-4 hours. Drain them in a colander and allow them to dry for a bit where they are almost dry but still a wee bit wet.
While they are drying, turn on your oven to 450 degrees and prepare two baking sheets with a little olive oil spread on them in a thin layer. Then take your 2-3 tablespoons of cornstarch or arrowroot powder and place in a large plastic bag, like a produce bag. Drop all of your fries in there and blow a little air in there, twist the bag shut and shake well till all the fries are coated evenly.
Spread the fries out on the prepared baking sheets and drizzle with the olive oil and roll the fries around till they are evenly coated. (I cheated and used olive oil spray to coat them) Make sure the fries are not touching or they will be your normal soggy sweet potato fries and not crispy at all. Sprinkle with the salt and spices of your choice and pop in the oven to bake for 15 minutes. Once they are getting brown, flip them over and bake for another 10-15 minutes till perfectly crispy and you are drooling. May I suggest serving them with homemade garlic mayo with a touch of hot sauce and extra salt in a wee bowl for people’s sprinkling pleasure.