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Susan Lutz

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Susan Lutz is a photographer, artist and television producer who is currently writing a book about heirloom foods and the American tradition of Sunday dinner.  She is a certified Master Food Preserver through the University of California Cooperative Extension, where she helps community members with canning and food preserving techniques. She has produced over 300 hours of documentary and nonfiction television programming for numerous cable networks including The Food Network, HGTV, A&E and History on topics that range from food chemistry to knitting to Haitian voodoo.    When she isn't blogging about Sunday dinner, she is often making photographs of heirloom foods or teaching the history of photography.  Raised in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley (where her father still cures his own hams), she currently lives near Washington, DC.

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Why Julia Child Still Matters To Cutting-Edge Chefs Image

When you visit the Smithsonian, you see Julia Child’s kitchen literally enshrined. It is surrounded by plexiglass, but you can see all of it and even “step inside” at places, while the kitchen itself is surrounded by videos of Julia. You get a sense of the real Julia, while you are also awed to be in the actual space inhabited by the First Lady of Food Television. Her seminal series “The French Chef” has just been re-released on the online TV site Twitch — bringing Julia once again into the public spotlight.

I was reminded of the cultural status of chefs at the Smithsonian’s Food History Gala. It was a public event to present the first ever Julia Child Award to Jacques Pépin. Taking place in the grand hall of the Smithsonian’s American History Museum, the location made it clear where chefs stand today in the pantheon of American greats. They stand right next to “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Literally.

Todd Schulkin, executive director of the Julia Child Foundation, felt the space was appropriate. “It was very meaningful to be in the flag hall,” he said “under the image of ‘The Star-Spangled Banner.’ ”

An ‘anonymous labor’

The first ever Julia Child Award was given to Jacques Pépin, who worked closely with Child. Credit: Photo courtesy of Jacques Pépin

The first ever Julia Child Award was given to Jacques Pépin, who worked closely with Child. Credit: Photo courtesy of Jacques Pépin

Marcus Samuelsson, author of “Yes, Chef,” reminded the distinguished guests that “being a chef was an anonymous labor for a long time.” Their high-flying cultural status is newfound. Even the evening’s celebrant, Jacques Pépin, spent the early part of his career as the corporate chef for Howard Johnson’s.

And it’s not just food stars, but food itself that has become a cultural touchstone. The Smithsonian’s Food History Weekend, kicked off by the gala, was followed by two more days of events and workshops that showcased innovation in American food culture. And the conversation didn’t stop with the weekend. The Smithsonian has embraced food history with the American Food History Project. It features monthly events that place food culture on the same level with such celebrated icons as Abraham Lincoln’s stovepipe hat and Dorothy’s Ruby Slippers.

But there was a wistfulness underpinning the gala dinner. Many of the speakers of the evening — including the celebrated Chef Pépin — remarked on the strangeness of being cultural superstars. They all seemed to feel a sense of concern: being “enshrined” can also mean losing touch. A classic artifact like Julia’s Kitchen must be preserved by plexiglass. But a chef shouldn’t be. Superstars can find themselves living in a bubble, and it takes work to avoid this fate.

A sense of fun

Marcus Samuelsson; Eric Spivey, chairman of The Julia Child Foundation; Jacques Pépin; and Sara Moulton at the Food History Gala. Credit: Photo courtesy of the National Museum of American History

Marcus Samuelsson; Eric Spivey, chairman of The Julia Child Foundation; Jacques Pépin; and Sara Moulton at the Food History Gala. Credit: Photo courtesy of the National Museum of American History

Most of the pantheon at the gala seemed to be deeply aware of this. Sara Moulton pointed out that Julia’s real métier was television — the great leveler. In Moulton’s first job in television, Julia Child told her: “smile for the camera.” Now on her own television series, Moulton keeps that smile and counsels her guests to “smile constantly and for no particular reason.” It’s not an act — it’s an acknowledgment of the reality of the joy of food. While setting up a food demo on a set, Julia said to Sara: “Aren’t we having fun?” Moulton had to think about it, then the truth dawned: “Yes, she said, “Yes, we are!”

It’s the sense of fun, the sheer joy of preparing food, which made Julia Child an icon — the first food superstar of our culture. The joyous face of Jacques Pépin as he accepted the Julia Child Award made it clear that he is a fitting inheritor. Perhaps there’s no better recipient than the man who has been creating food television since 1997. As Marcus Samuelson put it: “Julia started it. Jacques caught the baton.”

I got a sudden shock of the humanity of our great chefs on the last day of the Smithsonian’s Food History Weekend. I was leaving the American History museum when I ran into Anne Willan and Todd Schulkin coming in the doors. Willan, of course, is the founder of the iconic cooking school École de Cuisine La Varenne and author of “La Varenne Practique.” I was delighted to see them, and Willan explained she was coming to the Smithsonian to experience Julia’s Kitchen. “I’ve never seen it,” she said. Then she stopped with a frown, “Well, I have, of course, when I cooked in it with Julia. But I’ve never seen it…” She stopped again. “I’ve never seen it behind glass,” she finished.

The Smithsonian and the Julia Child Foundation are well aware of the danger of putting something behind glass. “Enshrining” both preserves — and distances. So on the same floor as Julia’s Kitchen, children can now interact with a miniature version of Julia’s Kitchen at the “Wegmans Wonderplace” exhibition, allowing them to grab pans from the famous pegboard wall and whip up a hollandaise sauce on the pretend stove. Events like Food History Weekends, and awards for populists like Jacques Pépin, can keep food culture personal, intimate and connected.

Main photo: Visitors can tour Julia Child’s kitchen at the National Museum of American History. Credit: Courtesy of the National Museum of American History

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Housemade Vinegar Stirs Up Old Lessons Image

High-end vinegar is going through something of a renaissance among foodies, chefs and home cooks. Vinegar is alive. Literally. At least before it’s pasteurized — a step taken by most manufacturers to make vinegar shelf stable. I’m on a quest to make my own vinegar, the kind that must be consumed quickly while at its peak acidity level, or fed at regular intervals to keep it alive. This living vinegar is tastier, healthier — and can give you better bragging rights — than the expensive pasteurized product you’re likely to find in gourmet food stores.

I dove into the world of DIY vinegar at the home of America’s greatest promoter of maker lifestyle: Thomas Jefferson. The Monticello Heritage Harvest festival is an annual celebration of food, history and the do-it-yourself spirit of the American Revolution, where authors and PhDs rub shoulders with urban homesteaders — a gathering that my husband calls “Historians ‘n’ Hippies.” My guides in the art of vinegar production come from both ends of this spectrum: Sandor Katz, author of “The Art of Fermentation,” and Gabriele Rausse, a pioneer of modern Virginian wine making and director of Gardens and Grounds at Monticello.

Ancient roots of vinegar culture

A hillside vineyard at Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello in Charlottesville, Virginia. Credit: Copyright 2015 Susan Lutz

A hillside vineyard at Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello in Charlottesville, Virginia. Credit: Copyright 2015 Susan Lutz

Vinegar appears in the human record at the dawn of civilization. Vinegar residue has been found in Egyptian urns from 3000 BC. Vinegar is mentioned as a tasty treat in the Bible and as medicinal treatment for colds in the works of Hippocrates. Apple cider vinegar was a cure-all in colonial America, but by the time of the American Revolution, people such as Thomas Jefferson explored vinegar as the ultimate addition to fine dining. Jefferson’s years in Paris made him a connoisseur of vinegar — and culinary historian Damon Lee Fowler declared Jefferson was positively “addicted” to tarragon vinegar.

Making your own

Sandor Katz takes a loose approach to the process of making your own vinegar. Credit: Copyright 2015 Susan Lutz

Sandor Katz takes a loose approach to the process of making your own vinegar. Credit: Copyright 2015 Susan Lutz

There are extremely elaborate, highly measured ways to accomplish the transformation of fruit juice or wine into fine vinegar. But Sandor Katz takes a loose, DIY approach to the process. Acetic-acid-producing bacteria called acetobacter and yeast — the two microorganisms required for vinegar making — are all around us. “You don’t have to be a microbiologist,” said Katz, when I expressed my concerns about making fruit scrap vinegar. “Not to worry: vinegar makes itself.” My process began with fruit scraps. While making a pie, I found myself with a pile of peach skins and several less-than-perfect chunks of fruit. I would begin with this, starting the process of turning fruit sugar into alcohol.

Step one: Sugar to alcohol

The production of alcohol in my peach scrap vinegar also yields carbon dioxide bubbles. Credit: Copyright 2015 Susan Lutz

The production of alcohol in my peach scrap vinegar also yields carbon dioxide bubbles. Credit: Copyright 2015 Susan Lutz

Vinegar requires two steps to turn fruit scraps into vinegar. First, yeast naturally found on fruit turns sugars in the fruit into alcohol — a process called alcoholic fermentation. And second, acetobacter converts the alcohol into acetic acid. A home brewer or winemaker will use specific types of fruit sugar and add a specific type of yeast to the mixture. For my purposes, I just mixed the fruit scraps with a sugar solution in a Mason jar following Katz’s recipe in his first book, “Wild Fermentation.” Then I covered the top with a paper towel secured with a rubber band and let the natural yeasts on the fruit (and in my kitchen) find their way to it. Yeast consumed the sugar, excreting carbon dioxide bubbles and ethanol in the process. I gently swirled the mixture around in the jar every once in a while and within a week, I could see the telltale bubbles that showed alcohol was being created.

Step two: Alcohol to acetic acid

A "mother" begins to form in my peach skin vinegar. Credit: Copyright 2015 Susan Lutz

A “mother” begins to form in my peach skin vinegar. Credit: Copyright 2015 Susan Lutz

My goal was not low-alcohol peach hooch. There’s a second step: turning alcohol into an acetic acid mixture that tastes delicious. “The word we use is French,” Katz said. “Vin aigre just means ‘sour wine.’ It is the consolation prize when alcohol goes bad.” I strained out the chunks of peach skin to stop the alcohol-creation process, then put the golden liquid into a new container with a scrap of thin kitchen towel over the top of the jar. Katz’s approach to this step is extremely simple: just let it sit there. The peach alcohol soon began to get stringy gelatinous threads that eventually massed into a noticeable translucent layer on top of my peach mixture. At first glance, it seemed like a food-safety disaster, but it’s actually the start of the vinegar magic.

This was the beginning of the “vinegar mother,” a gelatinous membrane made mostly of cellulose produced by the acetobacter. It is the “starter” from which more vinegar can be created. After two weeks, a quick whiff at the top of the jar revealed the powerful tang of transformation.

I poured some of the vinegar into a shot glass. It tasted sharp, with a hint of sweetness — a distinct peach taste to the delicious acidic liquid. I plan to let this sit for a couple of more weeks, until it reaches its peak of acidity. I have a dozen plans for this: salad dressing, marinade, potato salad, even mayonnaise.

Making fruit scrap vinegar was an interesting experiment, but this kind of live vinegar needs to be used fairly quickly, while at its maximum acidity level, or heat-pasteurized and stored in a closed narrow-necked bottle for long-term storage. I wasn’t interested in the details of heating and storing this kind of vinegar safely. And it is crucial to pay attention to these details because as the acidity level in vinegar drops, other microorganisms can start to take over — a potentially dangerous situation from a food-safety standpoint. I wanted to find an easy sustainable way to keep vinegar alive in my own kitchen, so I turned to a classic Italian method for making wine vinegar.

An alternate step: Acquire a mother

A thick vinegar mother in my kitchen. Credit: Copyright 2015 Susan Lutz

A thick vinegar mother in my kitchen. Credit: Copyright 2015 Susan Lutz

The traditional method of making vinegar with wine begins with acquiring a “mother of vinegar” from a vinegar-making friend or from a wine-making supply store. I was generously given a small jar of this vinegar mother by  Rausse. A passionate winemaker and vinegar maker, Rausse makes vinegar in his home every day using a “mother” that came from his grandmother’s house in Italy. When I asked him how long he had had his vinegar mother, he told me, “Since I was born.”

I was honored. My vinegar mother had its birth on another continent three generations ago. But such a legacy requires dedication and focus. I learned about the care and feeding of vinegar mothers at Rausse’s vinegar-making demonstration at Monticello’s Heritage Harvest Festival.

Keep your vinegar alive

Gabriele Rausse, Monticello’s director of Gardens and Grounds, in Monticello’s vineyard. Credit: Copyright 2015 Susan Lutz

Gabriele Rausse, Monticello’s director of Gardens and Grounds, in Monticello’s vineyard. Credit: Copyright 2015 Susan Lutz

The key to good vinegar, according to both Katz and Rausse, is to consume it while it is still alive. Most vinegar that you buy in the grocery store or gourmet shop has been pasteurized — the living organisms killed for the sake of shelf-stability and food safety. There is an important place for pasteurized vinegar, most notably in food preservation.

The USDA recommends that only vinegar with an acidity level of at least 5 percent should be used for pickling fruits and vegetables. Because the acidity level of homemade vinegar is unknown, it should never be used for pickling. I follow this rule in my own kitchen and encourage others to do the same. But when I want to dress a salad, I reach for live vinegar.

Up until now, I’ve bought commercially produced vinegar with live bacterial cultures (Bragg’s makes a good one from apple cider). In a few months, I hope I’ll be reaching for vinegar with a living history instead. My homemade vinegar will tell the story of at least three generations of Italian vinegar makers, with additional flavors from my own kitchen. Over time, I’m sure my homemade vinegar will transform into something unrecognizable to Gabriele Rausse and his grandmother, but I hope it will be a delicious heirloom that I’ll be able to pass on to friends and family over the years and eventually to my own grandchildren. Time will tell.

Main photo: Peach skins were used to make homemade peach vinegar. Credit: Copyright 2015 Susan Lutz

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Divine Southern Pimento Cheese Spread In 5 Easy Steps Image

Pimento cheese is the ultimate Southern junk food. But unlike most junk food, which is highly processed and untouched by human hands, pimento cheese at its best is a homemade affair.

On a recent road trip through the Shenandoah Valley and West Virginia, I found myself on a quest for good, old-fashioned pimento cheese. It’s a Southern delicacy with deep roots — a magical mixture of cheese, fat and spice that my grandmother would make as her private stash of comfort food, but one that she would share with me when I was a child. When I saw it on the menu of a roadside diner in rural Virginia, I was delighted and told my husband he was in for a treat. But this version of pimento cheese was cold, hard and — worst of all — bland. For the rest of the trip I insisted on trying pimento cheese at every diner and restaurant where I could find it. We ate several truly terrible versions and each time I would say, “I swear this isn’t how it’s supposed to taste!”

At our last stop, we found ourselves at a tiny restaurant called The Shack in Staunton, Va. And here, at last, was pimento cheese that tasted the way it should: sweet, salty, creamy, with a bit of a kick.

It was clear that somebody at The Shack also knew the power of good pimento cheese. The Shack’s tiny size is balanced by its enormous reputation. Southern Living Magazine ranked it as one of the South’s top 10 best new restaurants in 2014. I talked to Ian Boden, chef/owner of The Shack and asked him, given the short menu and the large reputation, why this lowly homespun cheese spread was special enough to make it into regular rotation. Boden’s answer was simple: “A big part of what I try to do is connect with people. And I think pimento cheese, especially in the South, connects with everybody.”

The power of pimento cheese, whether made by a renowned Southern chef or my own Granny Willie, was connection. Now I had to connect.

Fresh sweet Italian peppers, fresh pimento peppers and jarred whole sweet peppers can all be used to make pimento cheese. Credit: Copyright 2015 Susan Lutz

Fresh sweet Italian peppers, fresh pimento peppers and jarred whole sweet peppers can all be used to make pimento cheese. Credit: Copyright 2015 Susan Lutz

 

Choose the right peppers

I had tasted the real deal.  Now I wanted to make my own.  My grandmother never wrote down her recipe, so I had to start from scratch.  Thus began my quest to create the perfect pimento cheese. What started in a series of roadside restaurants ended in my own garden. In spring I hunted down pimento pepper plants (not a small feat, as it turned out) and planted them in the small raised bed in my backyard. I figured you can’t make decent pimento cheese without fresh pimento peppers.

But then I realized that fresh pimentos were actually a break from tradition. My grandmother used pre-chopped pimento peppers preserved in vinegar. Most women of her generation did the same thing.  Even chef Boden admits the cultural importance of this lowly jarred product.  The recipe served at The Shack also comes from a grandma — the grandmother of cook Brian Cromer.  Boden admits that if Cromer had his way, they would always make pimento cheese with chopped jarred pimento peppers, just as his grandma did.

But these days, Boden and his staff use fresh pimento peppers in season and tinned piquillo peppers the rest of the time.  I figured my backyard pimentos would work.

Fresh Nardello peppers from my local farmers market make a good substitute for pimentos in “pimento” cheese. Copyright 2015 Susan Lutz

Fresh Nardello peppers from my local farmers market make a good substitute for pimentos in “pimento” cheese. Copyright 2015 Susan Lutz

 

Experiment with new ingredients

The problem now was that I only had a limited supply of homegrown peppers. If I wanted to experiment, I’d have to look beyond the walls of my raised garden bed. As it turns out, the biggest barrier to making good pimento cheese was the limited availability (and seasonality) of fresh pimento peppers.

I started looking around for substitute peppers. And if I was going to experiment, then I might as well try different fresh peppers, as well as jarred pickled peppers. One of the most interesting peppers I tried were Nardello peppers, which were recommended to me by a helpful vendor at my farmers market. Slightly sweet, but with a satisfying crunch, Nardello peppers have a little more depth of flavor than a traditional pimento. I brought home a bunch to begin my experiment.

Broiling peppers in a toaster oven keeps the kitchen cool on a hot summer day. Copyright 2015 Susan Lutz

Broiling peppers in a toaster oven keeps the kitchen cool on a hot summer day. Copyright 2015 Susan Lutz

 

Roast your own peppers

Once I had gathered my peppers — homegrown pimentos, sweet Italian, and Nardello — the next step was to roast them. Roasting the peppers is the most time-consuming part of the process. I like to roast peppers in a toaster oven, but it can be done in a full-sized oven or even over a gas burner. I broiled 5 or 6 at a time for 15 minutes on each side, until they began to shrivel and the skins began to turn black in spots. (This would take less time in a traditional oven.)

Classic pimento cheese calls for a few simple ingredients—sharp cheddar cheese, green onion, Duke’s mayonnaise, cayenne, salt and pepper. I add sriracha hot chili sauce to the mix as well. Copyright 2015 Susan Lutz

Classic pimento cheese calls for a few simple ingredients—sharp cheddar cheese, green onion, Duke’s mayonnaise, cayenne, salt and pepper. I add sriracha hot chili sauce to the mix as well. Copyright 2015 Susan Lutz

 

Junk ingredients make great junk food

While letting my roasted peppers cool, I began working on the cheese base. I used my grandmother’s version –never written down, but clear in my taste memory — as inspiration. It begins with a great mayonnaise blended with shredded sharp cheddar and cream cheese. But I was concerned about exactly what kind of cheese I needed to get the traditional flavor. When I asked Boden, his answer surprised me: “Pimento cheese is junk food, so why not use junk food ingredients?” Boden mixes Cabot sharp cheddar cheese (a pretty good industrially produced cheese) and a style he calls “government cheese” to get the right flavor profile. “If you use a really good quality cheddar, it’s way too sharp and the texture gets chalky, and it’s just not right,” he said. “If you go to the grocery store and see the cellophane packages that say “best value” — that’s the cheese we’re talking about.”

Boden is also a big fan of Duke’s Mayo for his base — Duke’s being a tangy (and less-sweet) favorite Southern brand for nearly a hundred years.

The final step in making pimento cheese is adding the chopped peppers to the cheese base. Copyright 2015 Susan Lutz

The final step in making pimento cheese is adding the chopped peppers to the cheese base. Copyright 2015 Susan Lutz

 

Bring balance to the base

After I created the base, I scraped the skin off my cooled roasted peppers, de-seeded and diced them and tossed them into the mix. For experimental purposes I made small batches, each with a different kind of pepper.

One of the reasons I liked The Shack’s pimento cheese is that it conformed to my own ideas about how good pimento cheese should taste. Boden has similar thoughts on flavor balance in pimento cheese. “I think a lot of pimento cheeses tend to be out of whack as far as flavor goes,” Boden said. “I think ours has a good balance of sweet, and I know acidity in cheese is supposed to be a negative thing, but I think it has just enough acidity. I like a little heat in mine, so that brings it back into balance.” The Shack brings even more acidity to its spread by adding the brine from house-made spicy bread and butter pickles. It’s delicious, but too far from my grandmother’s ideal for my purposes. To add my own kick, I gave each batch a healthy dose of Sriracha sauce.

The result: perfection. At least for me. With Boden’s help, I had created a taste of my childhood and of rural Shenandoah Valley. My version is an ode to my grandmother, but it isn’t a recipe she’d recognize. I suspect she’d say it was too spicy, too oniony, and not nearly sweet enough. Time marches on and so do taste trends.

I gorged myself on the homegrown pimento pepper version and — to my surprise — my California-bred husband and my two daughters dug into the Nardello version, spreading it on crackers, French bread, celery and then fingers. It was Southern junk food at its best. And I think Granny Willie would be proud.

In the South, pimento cheese is traditionally served with Ritz crackers or celery -- sometimes both. Credit: Copyright 2015 Susan Lutz

In the South, pimento cheese is traditionally served with Ritz crackers or celery — sometimes both. Credit: Copyright 2015 Susan Lutz

 

Pimento Cheese

Prep time: 20 minutes

Cook time: 30 minutes, unless using commercially jarred peppers, which require no cooking time

Total time: 50 minutes if you’re roasting your own peppers

Yield: 2 to 2 1/2 cups

Ingredients

3 or 4 large pimento or other fresh sweet peppers of similar size. You may substitute 1/3 cup jarred or canned pimento, sweet Italian or piquillo peppers, finely diced.

4 ounces cream cheese, at room temperature

1/3 cup Duke’s mayonnaise (or your preferred brand)

8 ounces (about 2 1/2 cups) sharp orange cheddar cheese, shredded on a box grater

3 green onions, finely chopped including greens

1/4 teaspoon ground cayenne pepper

1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon Sriracha hot chili sauce

1/4 teaspoon kosher salt

1/8 teaspoon ground white pepper

Directions

1. Roast peppers under a hot broiler, turning at least once so they blister on both sides. I like to do this in a toaster oven, but it will take longer than in a traditional oven –up to 15 minutes on each side. When done, place peppers in a bowl and cover with plastic wrap to cool. If using jarred peppers instead of fresh, drain and dice 1/3 cup of peppers and set aside.

2.  Mix cream cheese and mayonnaise in a medium bowl until smooth.

3.  Add cheddar cheese, green onions, cayenne pepper, Sriracha chili sauce, kosher salt and white pepper to mixture until thoroughly combined.

4.  Scrape the blackened skin off roasted peppers, remove seeds and stem, then dice.

5.  Add diced peppers to cheese mixture and gently stir to combine.

6.  Serve at room temperature, accompanied by celery stalks or crackers, preferably Ritz. Pimento cheese may be refrigerated for several days but should be brought back to room temperature before serving.

Main photo: Pimento cheese is Southern junk food at its best — sweet and salty, with a kick.  Credit: Copyright 2015 Susan Lutz

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7 Tricks To Mealtime Magic With Artisanal Salts Image

Professional chefs and home cooks are discovering artisanal salt with a vengeance. No longer content with 50-pound bags of Morton or Diamond Crystal flake salt, chefs are using a bewildering array of salts from around the world in a dizzying variety of ways.

The reasons become clear on a visit to J. Q. Dickinson Salt-Works in Malden, West Virginia, where CEO Nancy Bruns is a seventh-generation salt-maker. In 2013 Nancy and her brother, Lewis Payne, revived their family’s historic salt-making business high in the Allegheny Mountains. In the past two years, their salt has become a favorite with chefs across the country. I spent the day at the salt-works and discussed the importance of salt with a variety of chefs who use Dickinson’s handmade product.

The reasons that artisanal salt has become important are many,  but seven reasons keep coming up.

Artisanal salt adds unique flavor

 Harvesting salt at Dickinson’s Salt-Works in the Kanawha Valley of West Virginia.  Credit: Copyright 2015 Susan Lutz

Harvesting salt at Dickinson’s Salt-Works in the Kanawha Valley of West Virginia. Credit: Copyright 2015 Susan Lutz

Whether it’s rock salt from the Himalayas or open-air evaporated salt from the Mediterranean coast of France, each form of artisanal salt has its own flavor profile.

Aaron Keefer, trained chef and culinary gardener at The French Laundry in Napa Valley, California, says the flavor of artisanal salt is hard to describe. “Any salt makes things taste better, but artisan salt has a more rounded flavor that adds a little something extra to the dish that you can’t put your finger on, but in the end you know it’s better.”

Good stories make good salt

A brine-settling vat at the old salt-works operation at Dickinson’s Salt-Works.  Credit: Courtesy of the J. Q. Dickinson family

A brine-settling vat at the old salt-works operation at Dickinson’s Salt-Works. Credit: Courtesy of the J. Q. Dickinson family

Artisanal salt always comes with a good story. Dickinson’s Salt-Works began just after the American Revolution, when Bruns’ ancestors began processing salt from the local briny pools. By the time of the Civil War, it was the biggest salt producer in the country. By the end of World War II, commercial salt production in West Virginia had essentially disappeared.

“I love the story,” Keefer says. “Dickinson’s salt was very popular, then it was defunct, then it was brought back in modern times.” But for Keefer, the heart of the story goes back even further: “What made it stand out for me is that the American Indians used it, and the method of extraction was unique.”

Bruns knows that there’s more to branding than simply a great product. “We have a great story which makes it a very authentic brand,” she says. “Seven generations of salt-making in one family on the same land is hard to beat.”

Balance: Minerality vs. salinity

Interior of hoop house for evaporating salt at Dickinson Salt-Works Credit: Copyright 2015 Susan Lutz

Interior of hoop house for evaporating salt at Dickinson Salt-Works. Credit: Copyright 2015 Susan Lutz

The key to an artisanal salt is the balance between minerality and salinity. A pink Himalayan rock salt has enough iron to give it its pink color. Celtic sea salt might have far fewer trace minerals. But each type balances the amount of the chemical sodium chloride, and the other minerals in the water source.

Bruns sources her product from a 400 million-year-old underground sea that geologists call “the Iapetus Ocean.” “Our source is very protected,” she says. “We are not drawing our brine from an exposed, open ocean where there is always the possibility of contamination.” The initial brine from her 350-foot well is rich in magnesium, calcium, potassium, manganese and especially iron. Bruns, a former chef, processes the brine to create a salt that has a unique appeal for other chefs.

Matt Baker, executive chef at City Perch Kitchen + Bar in Bethesda, Maryland, has become a fan of Dickinson’s salt: “The grain is nice and plump, so it holds its shape well while also having a medium level of salinity to the finish on the palate.”

Terroir: As vital in salt as it is in wine

Hoop houses and tanks at Dickinson Salt-Works. Credit: Copyright 2015 Susan Lutz

Hoop houses and tanks at Dickinson Salt-Works. Credit: Copyright 2015 Susan Lutz

Like wine, artisanal salt has terroir, the word winemakers use to describe that indefinable sense of place that gives each wine its unique personality.

Dickinson’s salt is pumped from more than 300 feet below the ground and evaporated in a series of small hoop houses. Dickinson Salt-Works uses handmade techniques drawn from a 200-year-old legacy. “We think of our salt as an agricultural product,” Bruns says. “It comes from the land, and we move the brine several times to maximize the flavor.”

Ian Boden, chef-owner of The Shack in Staunton, Virginia, says that good artisanal salt “has the taste of its place,” and Dickinson’s salt certainly does. “You can tell that it’s harvested from underneath a mountain because its mineral content is so high. It’s like using Hawaiian black salt — it has that earthy, funky, ash flavor. Except it’s not ash, it’s the mountains of West Virginia.”

The texture of artisanal salt adds contrast

Salt crystals forming in salt beds at Dickinson Salt-Works. Credit: Copyright 2015 Susan Lutz

Salt crystals forming in salt beds at Dickinson Salt-Works. Credit: Copyright 2015 Susan Lutz

Unlike the quickly dissolving grains of highly refined industrial salt, the texture of artisanal salt brings contrast to a dish. What most of us think of as texture is the result of a combination of factors including crystal structure, grain size and moisture content. Sometimes, it is texture alone that makes an artisanal salt memorable. All salts are either mined from rock or evaporated from saltwater lakes, springs or oceans. The majority of artisanal salts are evaporative, and the method of evaporation has a profound impact on the texture of the salt.

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Chef Boden says the unique character of Dickinson’s salt comes from its texture, which is the result of the solar evaporation process. “To be brutally honest, if you lined up 15 salts, I couldn’t tell you where each one came from, but I think there’s definitely a difference. If you lined salts up, I could tell by feeling it that it was Dickinson’s salt, most definitely.”

Chefs from east to west agree that Dickinson’s salt has a texture that can’t be beat. Baker of City Perch Kitchen + Bar discovered Dickinson’s salt through the restaurant’s mixologist Adam Seger and hasn’t looked back. “I instantly fell in love with the salt. What makes it great is its subtleness and medium-size grain.”

Keefer has also noticed the distinct texture of Dickinson’s salt. “It seems like all salts are shaped just a little bit differently. I like the grind on it — the flake on it — it’s a good all-around salt. I’ve used it both with fish and with meat and been very happy with the results.” Keefer adds, “Try as many different salts as possible and you’ll find a favorite.”

Artisanal salt gives a pop of flavor at the finish

 Nancy Bruns harvests salt at Dickinson Salt-Works. Credit: Copyright 2015 Susan Lutz

Nancy Bruns harvests salt at Dickinson Salt-Works. Credit: Copyright 2015 Susan Lutz

Artisanal salts are more expensive than industrially produced salts because of the time and resources required to produce them, but this increased price this doesn’t stop chefs from using artisanal salts in a variety of dishes. Keefer explains: “Everybody’s concerned about the price of artisan salt, but a little goes a long way. Use it as a finishing salt, not as a base salt.”

“Salt is there to make things taste more like themselves,” Boden says. But finishing salt is used in a slightly different way. “You put a little finishing salt on the dish and you get a pop of something unexpected. That’s really what we’re using it for — that textural and salinity contrast on a finished plate.”

Each chef uses finishing salt in a distinct and personal way. Baker reports: “We use Dickinson’s salt to finish a lot of our meats and fresh dishes like burrata cheese, seared tuna and foie gras torchon. The texture of the grains makes it melt in your mouth perfectly with a clean finish.”

The unexpected: Artisanal salt inspires creative chefs

Chocolate caramel tart finished with evaporated sea salt. Credit: Copyright 2015 Susan Lutz

Chocolate caramel tart finished with evaporated sea salt. Credit: Copyright 2015 Susan Lutz

Artisanal salt pumps up the flavor in unexpected dishes like desserts and cocktails. “I like to add a pinch of salt to a lot of my desserts — whether I’m making a cherry pie or chocolate frosting,” Keefer says. “I don’t put in enough to make it salty, but a pinch of salt adds a surprising amount of flavor.”

Baker has found a variety of unique applications for Dickinson’s salt. “At the bar we use it to rim our Forbidden Fruit Margarita and our Bloody Maryland.” Baker even uses Dickinson’s nigari (a by-product of the salt-making process) as the starter for his house-made ricotta cheese. He couldn’t be happier with the results. The nigari, which is traditionally used to make tofu, “gives the cheese a fresh bite of salinity and a hint of pepper.”

Dickinson Salt-Works has recently introduced a salt with a finer grain. Chef Boden at The Shack plans to experiment with it in his own take on traditional charcuterie, curing and fermenting. “It’s something I want to do. It brings a certain earthiness to the components.”

Artisanal salts are as varied as the almost endless places across the globe in which salt is mined or harvested. And it is these unique flavors and textures that inspire chefs — and the rest of us — to use artisanal salt in creative and ever-evolving ways.

Main photo: Every variety of artisanal salt has a unique flavor profile, thanks in part to the type and quantity of minerals it contains. Credit: Copyright 2015 Susan Lutz

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6 Garden-Starting Tips To Give Your Kids Green Thumbs Image

Spring has finally come to our neck of the woods, and we’re beginning to take the tiny shoots from our mini-greenhouse in our basement out into the world. I want my daughters to know where their food comes from, but growing a kid-friendly garden means more than just planting kid-friendly plants.


If you want to get kids to actually eat their veggies, it helps if you get them invested in the process and care of the garden. If your kids see the backyard vegetable garden as “theirs,” they are far more likely to embrace the products: happily eating radishes and arugula that they’ve grown on their own. Here are six tips — tested in our home — to get your kids to embrace gardening and become active agents in creating their own food.

1. Get dirty

Susan Lutz - 6 Quick Garden Tips for Kids

Kids need to dig into the earth and get their hands dirty. Credit: Copyright 2015 Susan Lutz

Forget the image of white-frocked children basking in a pristine flower bed; that image gets in the way of real gardening. Get your kids dirty as fast as possible. Ask them to dig with hand trowels, sticks or bare fingers, and they will leap at the opportunity. When watering, “accidentally” drench them with a good hosing. They’ll squeal, then beg for more — and watering is no longer a chore but a family frolic. Make mud and get them in it. Over-plant in anticipation of grubby little fingers pulling out the extraneous shoots. A garden shouldn’t be too precious. Good gardening demands some filth, and when kids realize this, they embrace it.

2. Get gross

If your garden doesn't have enough worms, buy some. Credit: Copyright 2015 Susan Lutz

If your garden doesn’t have enough worms, buy some. Credit: Copyright 2015 Susan Lutz

Kids love gross, and a garden has it in spades. Ask your kids to find worms, then take the opportunity to discuss their impact on the soil. If your garden doesn’t have enough worms, go buy them and let the kids play with their new “pets” while you’re putting them into the garden. If you want to step it up a notch, create a vermiculture bin and let your kids be in charge of the worm farm. Look for beneficial insects such as ladybug larvae and lacewings. Explain that the reason you wash food that comes from the garden comes down to two words: bird poop. Some kids may react negatively to grossness, but that’s part of the charm. Gross things are both attractive and repulsive to young ones, and finding that fine line where attraction and repulsion equal each other out keeps the kids coming back to the garden.

3. Get creative

Let children name their plants and processes. Credit: Copyright 2015 Susan Lutz

Let children name their plants and processes. Credit: Copyright 2015 Susan Lutz

Encourage your kids to rename the plants in the garden. Our girls have dubbed our sage bush as “Hairy Bigfoot Plant.” That name has made the humble herb extremely attractive to our girls and to the neighbor kids — especially after we cut out pieces from a milk jug and made markers for our newly named plants. In fact, our two girls and the neighbor boy run to this plant every morning as they walk to school and actually eat a leaf of Hairy Bigfoot Plant. Without that name, I suspect elementary school kids would not be eating raw sage leaves every morning on the way to school. Have your kids play The Name Game, and they are suddenly personally invested in growing and eating mummy peas (snap peas) and bloody spice balls (radishes).

4. Get a kit

Organize tools, tote bags and buckets into a kit. Credit: Copyright 2015 Susan Lutz

Organize tools, tote bags and buckets into a kit. Credit: Copyright 2015 Susan Lutz

Kids love kits, so create an easily portable garden set for each child. You can buy them ready-made at the nursery or dollar store … but where’s the fun in that? Ask your kids to choose cheap tools for themselves, or gather the tools you already have and put them in specific kits. We turned milk jugs into garden kits, but a tote bag or plastic bucket works just as well. Add more than just a trowel rake and gloves. Put in a magnifying glass, eyedroppers, specimen jars and other “scientific” tools to deploy in the garden. When it’s time to do some weeding, tell your kids to grab their kits and you suddenly have an eager workforce.

5. Get experimental

Do a few scientific experiments along the way. Credit: Copyright 2015 Susan Lutz

Do a few scientific experiments along the way. Credit: Copyright 2015 Susan Lutz

Make your garden a laboratory, not a display. Ask your kids to experiment with the dirt, the compost, the layout and the results of your planting. Turn gardening into a science experiment. When the plants are coming up, try taste experiments — is this bitter? Sour? Sweet? This type of hands-on discovery helps kids understand that “good” doesn’t always mean “familiar” — so that when your crop is ready for the kitchen, your kids will beg to try to results. This may require you to set aside a part of your garden to be devoted to the kids’ experiments (so that you don’t ruin your entire crop) but their creative/destructive explorations will personalize your garden… and its results.

6. Get dramatic

Let children style their garden pickings. Credit: Copyright 2015 Susan Lutz

Let children style their garden pickings. Credit: Copyright 2015 Susan Lutz

Learn a lesson from molecular gastronomy: Presentation and entertainment are part of the full experience of food. When it was time to thin the new shoots of butter crunch lettuce and arugula, we had our girls wash the tiny shoots and arrange them attractively on a platter with small chunks of string cheese and a drizzle of olive oil and lemon juice. A garden chore suddenly becomes an art project, then a dish of Farm-To-Table Micro-Greens. In the garden itself, use the “experimental” area for play as well as work: Set up scenes, fairy gardens or Lego cities beneath the plants. The “forest” of carrots grows more lush around the tiny family that lives beneath it … then Godzilla descends at harvest time, pulling the trees by the roots as the dolls run and scream in horror. The garden becomes a playground, and the plate becomes a stage, turning the concept of “playing with your food” into a deeper understanding of the earth, growing plants and the process of creating and eating food.

Main photo: Keep the fun factor high when enticing children to do gardening this summer. Credit: Copyright 2015 Susan Lutz

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Insider Tips From La Varenne Cooking School Image

Culinary icon Anne Willan has just released “Secrets From the La Varenne Kitchen,” a brief compendium of “50 Essential Recipes Every Cook Needs To Know.” This amazing book includes the recipes that are the backbone course for professional chefs and that Willan’s legendary school Ecole de Cuisine La Varenne in Paris has been creating since 1975.

Among the dishes are fish aspic, exquisitely specific details on puff pastry and 10 types of sorbet. But one recipe caught my eye: Court Bouillon — or in rough English translation: “Quick Broth.” As a mom who doesn’t have the time for more intricate recipes and whose two young girls don’t have the palates for aspic yet, I liked the sound of that. I called Anne Willan to get her thoughts.


“Secrets From the La Varenne Kitchen”
By Anne Willan, Spring House Press, 2015, 133 pages
» Click here for a chance to win a free copy
» Click here to buy the book


“It’s very interesting that you’ve chosen court bouillon,” Willan said from her home in Santa Monica, California, “because it’s not something anybody thinks of using nowadays. It really is right in sync with contemporary cooking,” she continued. “It’s very useful because today people always want to cook things healthfully and simply.”

Willan’s definition of court bouillon is simple and clear: “It’s a meatless and fatless broth, so very simple, but something that just adds flavor to whatever’s cooked in it.” The recipe, which is included below, is easy, but I was hoping to get some insider secrets. Willan was happy to comply, although clearly none of this seemed like a big secret to her: “Thinly slice the carrots,” she told me, “so that they give up their flavor in 15 or 20 minutes. Slice the onions fairly thinly, but not to worry about it. The green herbs you just drop in, keep the stems, they have lots of taste.”

The real secret of court bouillon is properly pairing the food being cooked in the broth with a sympathetic acidic ingredient. Traditionally, the acid used in court bouillon would be vinegar, wine or lemon juice. Willan provided more nuanced distinctions: “For whitefish, I’d probably go for wine, because you don’t want too strong a flavor. For darker fish, possibly lemon juice or vinegar because it balances the stronger flavor of the fish.”

In traditional French cuisine, court bouillon is a liquid used for simmering, and then it’s tossed out. But as we discussed using the broth as a part of the meal, Willan became intrigued, because that’s simply part of her cooking ethos. “Never throw anything away,” she said. “When you’ve got lovely cooking liquid from something like a big salmon, do something with it — fish soup with the leftover.”

I could hear her brain begin to click as she explored the Culinary Thought Experiment: “The liquid will have acquired the flavor of what’s been cooking in it,” she said. “So what I would like to do is boil it down, and make a little sauce with it, mount it with butter or something.”

Then her brain went into high gear: “You could do lovely experiments with it. I certainly haven’t gone into it myself, but you could do an Asian court bouillon, or a hot court bouillon. You’d use chili peppers, wouldn’t you? It’s got to be something pure, hasn’t it?”

From the wisdom behind La Varenne

This was more intriguing than interview questions: Willan was asking and answering herself, giving me a view into a creative culinary mind that has long fascinated me as I’ve gobbled up her writings and her recipes from the classic “From My Château Kitchen” to her dish-y memoir “One Soufflé at a Time.” As she brainstormed the possibilities for court bouillon, her encyclopedic knowledge of cooking became clear, as did her passion for food and good eating.

“Perhaps I’d use coriander instead of parsley. And then, what would you use it for? If you push it a little bit, you could use it for a risotto or cooking quinoa. Or even grits or corn meal.”

By the time we were done, Willan had improvised a court bouillon for down-home Southern cooking and an Asian-influenced broth with the addition of soy sauce, cilantro and rice wine vinegar. She cautioned me against using too much chili pepper if I wanted to try a hot version because the flavor of the pepper would concentrate as the broth cooked down. It was an invigorating conversation — an insight into a culinary mind-set deeply rooted in the basics, but excited to jump in and experiment.

I love my copy of “Secrets from the La Varenne Kitchen,” and I intend to use it to build those basic skills that every cook needs to know — whether they’re a chef at a high-end restaurant or a mom with kids to feed. And court bouillon seems to be an inspired place for me to start. Check out the slideshow that includes Willan’s secrets and two dishes that riff on the recipe.

Court Bouillon

By Anne Willan, courtesy Spring House Press

Prep time: 10 minutes
Cook time: 15 minutes
Total time: 25 minutes
Yield: 1 quart

Ingredients
1 quart water
1 carrot, sliced
1 small onion, sliced
1 bouquet garni
6 peppercorns
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup white wine or 1/3 cup vinegar or 1/4 cup lemon juice

Directions
1. Combine all the ingredients in a pan (not aluminum), cover and bring to a boil. Simmer uncovered 15 to 20 minutes and strain.

Main photo: Court Bouillon is tap water with a little bit of salt, peppercorn, sliced onion, parsley, bay leaf, sliced carrot and something acidic — often lemon juice, but equally often white wine and occasionally vinegar. Credit: Copyright 2015 Susan Lutz

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