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For cooks worth their designer salt

(ran NP edition)

It happened with coffee. It happened with ice cream. It happened with jelly beans and mustard and olive oil and vinegar and cheese and even water, and now it's happening with salt.

The salt of the earth has gone gourmet.

There's more to sodium chloride than meets the eye. Not only does it have different forms and different tastes, depending on where it comes from, it also has different colors: red salt from Hawaii; sel gris, gray salt, from France; black salt from India.

The colors come from trace mineral elements in the salt, the same properties that give salts different flavors.

"It's just like grapes," says Galen Sampson, executive chef at Baltimore's Harbor Court Hotel. "You can grow the same grape in 10 different places, and it will taste different because of what's around it."

Until the last couple of years, these celebrity salts were mostly a secret kept among chefs and well-traveled connoisseurs, but, since the mid-1990s, when entrepreneurs discovered specialty salt and began bringing it into the country, fleur de sel (blossom of the salt), sea salts and other fancy salts have been showing up in restaurants and specialty stores and even in supermarkets.

Each of the specialty salts has a particular use. Ultrapure salt is used for pickling, kosher salt is used for creating kosher meats, and the "boutique" salts are used for dressing up dishes.

Taste differences are subtle but clear: Sel gris, which comes from Brittany on the coast of France, has an earthy, slightly metallic taste. Sea salt tastes faintly of the sea.

People use salts in all kinds of different ways, Sampson said: "We use it in baking, in curing and preserving meats and, of course, for the flavor, and it's essential in cheese making to draw the moisture out of the curd."

Using a boutique salt also can provide texture for foods, Sampson demonstrated recently at the hotel. He produced a plate of sliced tomatoes and sliced goat cheese and sprinkled various salts over them. Both fleur de sel and Diamond Crystal kosher offer a crunch that contrasts nicely with the silky texture of the tomato.

The craving for salt is as old as mankind and with good reason: Salt is essential in the diet. It's among the electrolytes that control electrical charges in the body's cells. Electrolytes regulate the body's water balance and heartbeat, promote healthy skin, aid kidney function and send oxygen to the brain, among other things.

As Michele Anna Jordan explains in her new book, Salt & Pepper (Broadway Books, 1999, $25), early humans got all the salt they needed from the raw meat they ate. (Animals need salt for the same reasons people do.) As people's diets became more refined and complex, they learned to get salt from other sources.

We like salt also because it plays a major role in how food tastes.

"I love what salt does for food _ it really makes food blossom," Jordan says. When salt dissolves on your tongue, "it brings everything together."

It's hard to say exactly what salt does to enhance flavor. For her book, Jordan talked to food scientist Harold McGee. McGee told Jordan that, because there are only a few genuine tastes perceptible on the tongue, and salt is one of them, it adds to the balance and complexity of flavor. Salt also affects the way other flavors in food become available to our senses, McGee said.

Shirley Corriher, food writer and "culinary sleuth" whose latest cookbook is CookWise: the Whys and Hows of Successful Cooking (Morrow, 1997, $28.50), said, "I think with so many dishes salt really makes the dish. I'm passionate about sea salt. I think it's absolutely delicious."

Salt is harvested in one of two ways. It is mined from deposits left by ancient seas, or it is evaporated from sea water or salt springs.

Ordinary table salt, Corriher said, is formed by vacuum evaporation, which creates a dense cube. Sea salt is formed through surface evaporation, and fleur de sel is the first light crystals that are formed on the surface of a new salt-evaporation pond.

Most commonly available kosher salt is table salt fused into larger grains that are ideal for absorbing the moisture in meats. It might more properly be called "koshering" salt because it is used to make meat kosher. However, one product, Diamond Crystal kosher salt, is formed through a patented process that creates hollow pyramid shapes.

For consumers, the main difference between table salt and boutique salt is the price. A 2-pound box of ordinary table salt costs about 50 cents. French sea salt can cost $20 a pound, and fleur de sel is $25 to $30. The expense is due to the hand labor involved in harvesting the salts.

In terms of food, the major differences in salt are the rate at which it dissolves and the volume. Denser salts, such as table salt, are slow to melt. Lighter salts, such as fleur de sel or Diamond Crystal kosher salt, dissolve more rapidly.

"Some of the kosher and sea salts dissolve nine times faster" than table salt, Corriher said. "It's the difference between an ice cube and a snowflake."

The volume is important in cooking, and it can vary considerably, Corriher said. If a recipe called for 1 tablespoon of table salt, an equivalent amount of regular kosher salt would be 1{ tablespoons. An equivalent amount of Diamond Crystal kosher salt would be 2 tablespoons.

When do you add salt to a dish? "I usually salt as I go along," Corriher said. It's important to taste frequently, she said, so that you're continually getting information about how the flavors are developing.

Jordan said that, if she is making something that has stages, such as risotto, she also salts in stages. "You're building up flavor," she says.

She likes to use kosher salt or sea salt at the last minute on things such as roasted asparagus or fresh tomatoes.

While salt has its advocates, it also has its detractors, who have sought for 50 years to persuade Americans to eat less salt. Their argument is that reducing salt intake can reduce the incidence of hypertension, or high blood pressure.

However, recent studies have weakened the link between salt and hypertension that leads to heart attacks. A 1995 study reported in the American Heart Association's journal Hypertension found that patients with the lowest levels of salt in their diets were four times as likely to suffer a heart attack as those with high levels of salt. In April researchers for the National Institutes of Health's Framingham Heart Study attributed dramatic decreases in hypertension over the past four decades to the use of hypertension-battling drugs, not to dietary restrictions.

The government-recommended daily allowance of sodium is 2,400 milligrams a day. The Salt Institute, a trade association of North American salt producers in Alexandria, Va., says Americans consume between 3,600 and 3,900 milligrams a day.

Jordan, Corriher and others contend that the only people who need to watch their salt intake are the 8 percent to 10 percent of the population who are sensitive to it and that the other 90 percent of the population needn't worry.

The Salt Institute reports that sales of salt for food use have risen from 943,000 tons in 1980 to 1.4-million tons in 1997, an increase of 49.9 percent.

Jordan blames the consumption of highly salted processed foods for raising salt intake among people who never pick up a salt shaker. If you feel that you need to cut back, she says, simply stop eating processed food.

"I try to encourage people not to micro-manage their nutrients," Jordan said. "Instead, you should eat good food in season and season it properly."

Lemon-burst Shrimp with Caviar

1 pound Salty-Sea Perfect Tender Shrimp (recipe follows)

2 medium shallots, peeled

1 package (8 ounces) cream cheese

{ teaspoon salt

2 large, long seedless cucumbers, or 3 regular cucumbers

3 thin slices thin-skinned lemon

1 small jar (2 ounces) red or black caviar, well-chilled

Cook, peel and devein the shrimp according to directions in recipe for Salty-Sea Perfect Tender Shrimp.

With the steel knife in the work bowl, turn the food processor on and drop the shallots down the feed tube into the spinning blade to mince. Add cream cheese and salt and process to mix. Slice each shrimp in half horizontally so that each half still looks like a shrimp. Slice cucumber into about \-inch slices. Cut each lemon slice (peel on) into quarters, then cut each quarter into three small wedges.

Generously spread cucumber slice with 1 tablespoon of the cream cheese-shallot mixture. Place a shrimp, cut side down, on each cucumber slice. Stand a small lemon wedge, peel up, in the curl of the shrimp. Chill. Just before serving, spoon a small mound of caviar inside curl of shrimp at the base of the lemon wedge. Serves 6.

Source: CookWise, by Shirley Corriher (Morrow, 1997, $28.50).

Salty-sea Perfect Tender Shrimp

12 cups water (3 quarts total), divided use

1 large seafood seasoning boil bag such as Old Bay

1{ teaspoons salt, preferably sea salt

1 onion, quartered

1 lemon, quartered

30 ice cubes

1{ pounds large (26-35 count) shrimp in shells

Bring 6 cups of water with the seafood seasoning, salt, onion and lemon in it to a boil in a large pot. Simmer over low heat for about 4 minutes. Scoop out 2 cups of this flavored liquid and place in a large mixing bowl. Add ice cubes to the bowl, stir and let cool.

Add 6 cups water to the pot with hot liquid and seasoning bag and bring back to a full boil. Add the shrimp. When the water comes back to a simmer, immediately turn heat down to medium-low. Simmer the shrimp 4{ minutes, then start scooping them out with a large slotted spoon or strainer. Place the shrimp instantly in the prepared bowl of flavored water with ice cubes. Stir shrimp to cool evenly and add more ice cubes if all melt. Let shrimp stand about 5 minutes in the flavored water. Drain, peel and devein. Serve cold. Serves 6.

Source: CookWise, by Shirley Corriher (Morrow, 1997, $28.50).

Rockfish Baked in Salt

1 rockfish, about 3 pounds, cleaned

3 slices fresh ginger

4 pounds rock salt

2-3 sheets of "nori" (see note)

{ cup dark soy sauce

Juice of 1 lime

1 tablespoon grated fresh ginger

1 bunch (about 10) scallions, trimmed and sliced into thin rounds

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Rinse the fish in cool water and dry it with a tea towel. Tuck slices of ginger into the cavity of the fish. Spread a layer of salt about }-inch thick on the surface of a large baking sheet or other oven-proof container large enough to hold the fish. Wrap the fish entirely in the nori, set it on top of the salt and then use the remaining salt to cover the fish completely.

Bake for 30-40 minutes until the fish reaches an internal temperature of about 130 degrees (use an instant-read thermometer and poke it through the salt crust into the fish). Remove the pan from the oven and let it rest for 5-10 minutes, during which time the fish will continue to cook.

Meanwhile, mix together the soy sauce, lime juice, grated ginger and about a tablespoon of the scallions. Carefully remove the fish from its salt bed, set it on a work surface and remove the nori wrapper. Set the fish on a serving plate, scatter the remaining scallions over the surface and serve immediately with the sauce alongside. Serves 3-4.

Note: Nori is Japanese dried seaweed. Most people are familiar with it as the outer wrapping on sushi. It is available at specialty stores and in Asian markets.

Source: Salt & Pepper, by Michele Anna Jordan (Broadway Books, 1999, $25).

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