Articles in Technique

Sorrel soup with crème fraîche prepared by chef Jacques Fiorentino at L'Assiette Steak Frites. Credit: Copyright 2015 David Latt

Puréed vegetable soups make an excellent entrée for a delicious meal consisting entirely of a soup and salad.

Wanting an authentic French recipe, I visited chef Jacques Fiorentino in the West Hollywood kitchen of his restaurant L’Assiette Steak Frites where he demonstrated his easy-to-prepare sorrel soup.

Sorrel brings dark, leafy goodness

Fresh sorrel, Coleman Family Farm (Santa Barbara and Ventura County) at the Santa Monica Farmers Market. Credit: Copyright 2015 David Latt

Fresh sorrel, Coleman Family Farm (Santa Barbara and Ventura County) at the Santa Monica Farmers Market. Credit: Copyright 2015 David Latt

Sorrel is not spinach. The leaves are similar, but the flavor is completely different. Richly flavored with citrus notes, sorrel’s dark green pointed leaves are a good source of potassium, vitamin A and vitamin C.

Unlike many leafy greens, sorrel is a perennial. One spring we were given a small plant in a 3-inch pot. During the first year the plant doubled in size. By pinching off the floral buds and harvesting the young leaves, the plant flourished and we enjoyed sorrel soup on a regular basis. After several years it grew so vigorously that it all but took over the garden.

A riff on soupe à l’oseille, a French classic

Calling his restaurant Steak Frites, Fiorentino announced to the world that his restaurant was solidly in the French bistro tradition. The dark wood interior and precise menu puts a spotlight on favorites that would be found in neighborhood restaurants throughout France.

Like Proust and his madeleines, Fiorentino uses a few carefully chosen dishes to evoke his childhood in Paris. For him that means grilled steak, double-cooked french fries (frites), foie gras and sorrel soup with deep herbal accents. As a nod to contemporary preferences he added salmon and, for vegetarians, portobello mushrooms with frites.

Wash. Sauté. Simmer. Blend. Season.

Immersion blender puréeing sorrel soup in the kitchen at L’Assiette Steak and Frites. Copyright2015 David Latt

Immersion blender puréeing sorrel soup in the kitchen at L’Assiette Steak and Frites. Copyright2015 David Latt

Depending on the chicken flavoring used, you will need more or less salt. Homemade chicken stock has the least salt and is preferred. Packaged stock, chicken concentrate and bouillon cubes have considerably higher salt contents.

Good quality concentrated chicken stock and bouillon cubes can be purchased in restaurant supply stores and supermarkets. Since the sodium content varies considerably, delay adding salt to the soup until all ingredients have been blended, then taste and season.

A vegetarian version can be created by substituting vegetable for chicken stock. As with chicken stock, homemade vegetable stock is preferable to bouillon cubes and will have a lower salt content.

In the restaurant, Fiorentino uses potato flakes for flavor and convenience. If you would prefer to use potatoes, boil the potatoes in salted water until a paring knife pierces the flesh easily. Allow to cool, peel, cut into quarter-sized pieces, add to the soup and blend.

L’Assiette Sorrel Soup

Sorrel soup with sorrel simmering in the kitchen of chef Jacques Fiorentino's L’Assiette Steak and Frites. Credit: Copyright 2015 David Latt

Sorrel soup with sorrel simmering in the kitchen of chef Jacques Fiorentino’s L’Assiette Steak and Frites. Credit: Copyright 2015 David Latt

Prep time: 20 minutes

Cooking time: 40 minutes

Total time: 60 minutes

Yield: 4 servings

Ingredients

4 ounces unsalted butter

1 small red onion, washed, peeled, roughly chopped

1/2 stalk celery, washed, trimmed, roughly chopped

1/2 teaspoon dried thyme

1/2 teaspoon dried marjoram leaves

1 medium-sized potato, Yukon Gold preferred, washed

1 1/2 cups chicken stock (homemade preferred) or 1½ cups water and 3 cubes Knorr chicken bouillon

8 ounces whole milk

4 ounces cream

1/4 pound fresh sorrel, washed, leaves only

Sea salt to taste

Pinch freshly ground white pepper, finely ground

Directions

1. Heat a large saucepan over a medium flame. Add butter, melt and allow to lightly foam. Add chopped onion and celery, stir well and sauté until the onion is lightly translucent. Do not allow to brown. Add thyme and marjoram, stir well to combine flavors.

2. Boil a pot of salted water, cook whole potato, covered, for 20 minutes or until a pairing knife enters easily. Set aside to cool.

3. Add liquid, either chicken stock or water, stir well and continue simmering for a minute or two. Pour in milk and cream, stir well and bring flame up to medium so the liquids simmer five minutes to combine the flavors, being careful not to boil.

4. Add whole sorrel leaves. Stir into the soup. Reduce flame so the soup simmers. Stir frequently and cook 25 to 30 minutes to combine flavors. If water was used instead of chicken stock, add chicken bouillon or base, stir well. Simmer an additional 5 minutes.

5. Blend the soup using either an immersion or a general purpose blender, about 5 minutes. Peel the cooked potato, dice and add to the soup. Blend until smooth.

6. Taste and adjust seasoning with sea salt and freshly ground white pepper.

Serve hot with fresh bread and, if desired, a tossed green salad.

Main photo: Sorrel soup with crème fraîche prepared by chef Jacques Fiorentino at L’Assiette Steak Frites. Credit: Copyright 2015 David Latt

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Charred ears of corn on a grill. The corn will be used in a Mexican corn salad. Credit: Copyright 2015 David Latt

An abundance of corn in farmers markets is a delight and a challenge. Having already grilled platters of corn on the barbecue and boiled armfuls of shucked ears, it is time to invent another way to enjoy one of summer’s most delicious vegetables. Borrowing the flavors of elote, a Mexican classic, turns grilled corn into a salad that will delight everyone at the table.

Mexican street food delight

An elote, or corn on the cob, sign at Cerveteca Taco & Torta Joint in Culver City, California. Credit: Copyright 2015 David Latt

An elote, or corn on the cob, sign at Cerveteca Taco & Torta Joint in Culver City, California. Credit: Copyright 2015 David Latt

Travel in Mexico and you’ll encounter street vendors selling a great number of delicious food snacks. One of my favorites is elote, or corn on the cob, in which an ear of corn is cooked, dusted with dry cheese and seasoned with chili powder and fresh lime juice. The ear of corn is always served whole, sometimes resting in a paper dish or with a stick in the bottom like a corndog.

Elote is delicious but messy to eat. First there is the matter of the whole ear of corn, which takes two hands to manage. And, with each bite, the finely grated Cotija cheese tends to float off the corn and drift onto clothing.

Deconstructing elote

Charred corn kernels cut off the cob in a seasoning pan to make Mexican corn salad. Credit: Copyright 2015 David Latt

Charred corn kernels cut off the cob in a seasoning pan to make Mexican corn salad. Credit: Copyright 2015 David Latt

Cutting the kernels off the cobs makes the seasoned corn so much easier to enjoy. In Mexico there is a corn kernel snack called esquites, which employs some of the seasonings used in making elote. This recipe is different because no mayonnaise is mixed with the corn. Mexican Corn Salad can be served as a light and refreshing entrée topped with a protein or as a side dish accompanying grilled vegetables, meats, poultry and fish. The elote salad is the perfect summer recipe.

The best way to cook corn on the cob is a topic of heated debate. There are those who will only boil corn, others who will only grill it. I have seen elote prepared both ways. My preference is to strip off the husk and grill the ear so that some of the kernels are charred, adding caramelized sweetness to the salad.

Just the right cheese

Cotija cheese finely grated to use in Mexican corn salad. Credit: Copyright 2015 David Latt

Cotija cheese finely grated to use in Mexican corn salad. Credit: Copyright 2015 David Latt

What gives elote its distinctive flavor is the combination of finely grated dry Mexican Cotija cheese, spicy chili powder and fresh lime juice. Powdery when finely grated, Cotija cheese is salty so you may not need to add salt when you make the corn salad. Often described as having qualities similar to feta and Parmesan, Cotija tastes quite different.

Mexican Corn Salad

Mexican Corn Salad. Credit: Copyright 2015 David Latt

Mexican Corn Salad. Credit: Copyright 2015 David Latt

Prep time: 10 minutes

Cook time: 15 to 20 minutes

Total time: 25 to 30 minutes

Yield: 4 entrée servings or 8 side dish servings

Ingredients

4 tablespoons olive oil, divided

1/2 teaspoon sea salt

1/4 teaspoon black pepper

4 large ears of corn, husks and silks removed, washed, dried

1/2 cup finely grated Cotija cheese

1/2 teaspoon chili powder

3 cups Italian parsley, washed, leaves only, chopped

2 limes, washed, quartered

Directions

1. Preheat an indoor grill or outdoor barbecue to hot.

2. Pour 2 tablespoons olive oil into a flat pan and season with sea salt and black pepper.

3. Roll the ears of corn in the seasoned olive oil to coat all sides.

4. Using tongs, place the corn on the grill, turning every 2 to 3 minutes so that some of the kernels char, being careful not to burn the ears.

5. When cooked on all sides, remove and let cool in the flat pan with the seasoned olive oil.

6. To cut the kernels off the cob, use a sharp chef’s knife. Hold each ear of corn over the pan with the seasoned oil and slice the kernels off the cob.

7. Transfer the kernels and the remaining seasoned oil into a large mixing bowl.

8. Add Cotija cheese, chili powder and parsley. Toss well.

9. Drizzle the remaining olive oil over the salad and toss.

10. Serve at room temperature with lime wedges on the side.

Notes: Adding finely chopped Italian parsley to the seasoned corn kernels brightens the flavors. Cilantro can be used instead of parsley to give the salad a peppery flavor.

Traditionally, mayonnaise is slathered on the elote or mixed into esquites before adding the cheese and chili powder. I prefer to use olive oil to give the salad a lighter taste.

To use as an entrée, top with sliced grilled chicken, shrimp or filet of fish.

The salad can be prepared ahead and kept in the refrigerator overnight. In which case, do not add the Cotija cheese or parsley until just before serving.

To create a large, colorful salad, just before serving, toss the seasoned corn and parsley with quartered cherry tomatoes, cut-up avocados and butter lettuce or romaine leaves.

After tossing, taste the salad and adjust the amount of Cotija cheese and chili powder.

Main photo: Charred ears of corn on a grill. The corn will be used in a Mexican corn salad. Credit: Copyright 2015 David Latt

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Drizzle grilled romaine lettuce with balsamic vinaigrette and top with crumbled blue cheese, toasted walnuts and fresh ground pepper. Credit: Copyright 2015 Tina Caputo

I think it was Ben Franklin who coined the saying, “Everything tastes better with grill marks on it.” (Or was it John Adams?) This is especially true in the summer, when a bounty of vegetables and fruits bursts from our gardens, and it’s just too gorgeous outside to stay in the kitchen.

Most of us have tossed asparagus, ears of corn and red bell peppers on the “barbie.” When we’re feeling really adventurous, we may even grill peaches. But why stop there, when there’s a whole farmers market of summer produce to explore?

With this idea in mind we hit the market, revved up the Weber and found some fabulous new options to add to our summer grilling repertoire. (And as Ben Franklin would tell you, not all experiments are successful; that’s why our list also includes a couple of clunkers.)

Grab your tongs and click on!

Main photo: Drizzle grilled romaine lettuce with balsamic vinaigrette and top with crumbled blue cheese, toasted walnuts and fresh ground pepper. Credit: Copyright 2015 Tina Caputo

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Carrot and radicchio salad. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clifford A. Wright

The grill is blasting away, people are licking their chops, and you’re asking yourself, “what sides?” A great approach is a salad, of course. But why stop at merely one salad? And too often that salad is one of the heavy mayonnaise-based standbys, macaroni salad or potato salad.

An approach I love is four salads, all of which should be easy to make and easy to make ahead of time. The first is a refreshing and simple salad of julienned carrots and a slightly bitter red radicchio that you can put together while the meat cooks. Young carrots are cut into matchsticks with radicchio sliced into strips and tossed with extra virgin olive oil, salt and pepper, and that’s it.

Make the most of ripe tomatoes

Tomato, egg and olive salad. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clifford A. Wright Photo credit: Clifford A. Wright

Tomato, egg and olive salad. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clifford A. Wright

A second nice salad is a tomato, egg and olive salad. You would assemble this beautiful dish as you would a work of art. It’s stunning to look at and eat. Choose vine-ripened juicy tomatoes, preferably from your own tomato plant, and the best olives, not too bitter, not too salty.

Hard-boil the eggs and slice them interspersed with sliced tomatoes and black olives, all arranged in a spiral, and garnish with parsley, extra virgin olive oil, fresh lemon juice, salt and pepper. Do not refrigerate this dish.

Take bean salad inspiration from Greece

Mavromakita fasolia (black-eyed pea salad). Credit: Copyright 2015 Clifford A. Wright

Mavromakita fasolia (black-eyed pea salad). Credit: Copyright 2015 Clifford A. Wright

Many people must have a bean salad in summer, and a wonderful Greek version is made with canned black-eyed peas. Canned beans will work fine, as long as they are packed only in water. If you can’t find beans canned in water, you can boil some dried black-eyed peas instead.

After this step, the salad takes just five minutes to put together. For six servings, open two 15-ounce cans of black-eyed peas and rinse them. Toss with two trimmed and finely chopped scallions, a little salt, one small finely chopped clove of garlic, three tablespoons chopped fresh dill, five tablespoons extra virgin olive oil and freshly ground pepper to taste.

Show off seafood in a rice salad from Sicily

Riso al mare (seafood rice salad). Credit: Copyright 2015 Clifford A. Wright

Riso al mare (seafood rice salad). Credit: Copyright 2015 Clifford A. Wright

The last of our summer salads is a bit more involved, but not hard, and I provide you a recipe below. Years ago, in Sicily, I had a riso al mare, a seafood rice salad, that was probably the best I’ve ever had.

We were skin diving off the tiny port of San Gregorio and were exhausted and ravenous when we exited the water, which may have helped in the enjoyment of this salad.

Riso al mare (Seafood Rice Salad)

Rice for riso al mare (seafood rice salad). Credit: Copyright 2015 Michelle van Vliet

Rice for riso al mare (seafood rice salad). Credit: Copyright 2015 Michelle van Vliet

Prep time: 30 minutes

Cooking time: 30 minutes

Total time: 60 minutes

Yield: 6 servings

Ingredients

6 mussels, scrubbed and bearded just before cooking

6 littleneck clams, scrubbed

1/2 carrot, peeled

1 squid, skin pinched off, viscera removed, tentacles cut off below the eyes, washed clean

3 tablespoons unsalted butter

2 1/2 cups medium-grain rice (Spanish rice)

2 1/2 cups water

Salt to taste

6 cooked medium shrimp, shelled and very finely chopped

One 3-ounce can tuna packed in oil, very finely chopped with its oil

3 ounces Norwegian or Scottish smoked salmon, finely chopped

2 canned hearts of palm, drained and finely chopped

2 teaspoons beluga or salmon caviar (or 1/2 teaspoon black or red lumpfish caviar)

3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh parsley

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Directions

1. Place the mussels and clams into a pot with a few tablespoons of water and turn the heat to high. Cover and cook until they open, 4 to 8 minutes. Discard any that do not open and remain firmly shut. Let the mussels and clams cool, remove from their shells, and chop very finely. Set aside in a mixing bowl.

2. Place the carrot in a small saucepan, covered with water, and turn the heat to high. Bring to a boil and cook until crisp-tender (or whatever you prefer), about 10 minutes. Drain and chop finely.

3. Put the squid body and tentacles into the pot you cooked the mollusks. Add 3 tablespoons water and cook on a high heat until firm, about 4 minutes. Let cool, and chop the body finely. Cut the tentacles in half and set aside. Add the rest of the chopped squid to the mixing bowl with the clams and mussels.

4. In a heavy 4-quart enameled cast-iron pot or flame-proof casserole with a heavy lid, melt the butter over medium-high heat. Add the rice and cook, stirring frequently, for 3 minutes. Add the water and 2 teaspoons salt, reduce the heat to very low, cover and cook undisturbed for 12 minutes. Do not lift the lid until then. Check to see if the rice is cooked and all the water has been absorbed. If it hasn’t, add a little boiling water and cook until tender. Transfer the cooked rice to a second large mixing bowl, spreading it out so it will cool faster.

5. Once the rice is completely cooled, use a fork to toss it well with the mussels, clams, carrot, squid, shrimp, tuna, smoked salmon, hearts of palm, caviar, olive oil and parsley. Check for seasoning and add salt and pepper as desired.

6. Arrange attractively on an oval platter and garnish each end with the squid tentacles and parsley sprigs.

Main photo: Carrot and radicchio salad. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clifford A. Wright

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Grilled pork chops oregano. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clifford A. Wright

July Fourth begs for a magnificent grill party. It’s summer, it’s a great celebration of the nation’s birth and everyone is outdoors and in party mode. Why hold back on July Fourth? Why not grill everything? With a couple of days’ planning, you can really do something amazingly and deliciously different.

Here are four great ideas for the barbecue. There’s no reason why you can’t do all of the these dishes, although it does require that planning. You will have to consider how many people you’re cooking for, think about how large your grill is and make plans for placing all the dishes on the grill.

Getting organized for easy grilling

Colorful peppers on the grill. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clifford A. Wright

Colorful peppers on the grill. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clifford A. Wright

There’s something else many people forget when they grill, but it makes everything easier. Remember to set up a little work station next to the grill to put foods that are cooking too fast, spatulas, mitts and your drink. Even a crummy card table will do. When building your grill fire, remember to pile up the coals to one side of the grill so you also have a “cool” side to move food that is either cooking too fast or is flaring up.

Grilled pork chops are a popular dish in the summer in Greece. In this recipe, though, they are cut quite thin, so you might want to buy a whole loin and slice it yourself or seek out “thin-sliced pork chops,” which many supermarkets sell. In any case, it works with any thickness of chop.

The pork is marinated in garlic and oregano and then grilled until it is golden brown with black grid marks. Then sprinkle the whole oregano leaves on top. You can serve this with a grilled vegetable platter.

You may have heard of the pasta dish called penne all’arrabbiata, angry pasta, so-called because of the use of piquant chiles. This is chicken arrabbiata. It’s “angry” because it is highly spiced with cayenne pepper.

Getting spicy with ‘angry chicken’

Chicken Arrabbiata (angry chicken). Credit: Copyright 2015 Clifford A. Wright

Chicken Arrabbiata (angry chicken). Credit: Copyright 2015 Clifford A. Wright

This chicken gets grilled so if you use the breasts instead of the thighs it will cook quicker. You can leave the chicken skin on or remove it. Crispy skin is delicious, but trying to get the skin crispy on a grill is tricky because of flare-ups. You’ll have to grill by means of indirect heat, pushing the coals to one side.

Many people shy away from grilling whole fish for a variety of reasons. One way to make grilling fish easier is to place a rectangular cast iron griddle over a portion of the grilling grate and cook the fish on top.

If you do that, the griddle must be on the grill for at least 45 minutes to get sufficiently hot before cooking. I suggest several fish below, but it all depends on what’s locally available.

Finding the right fish for the grill

Blue mackerel and idiot fish (kinki fish). Credit: Copyright 2015 Clifford A. Wright

Blue mackerel and idiot fish (kinki fish). Credit: Copyright 2015 Clifford A. Wright

Parsley-stuffed grilled porgy and mackerel are two small-fish dishes ideal for a fast grill. You may not necessarily have these two fish available, so use whatever is the freshest whole fish of like size.

I like the contrast between the mild tasting white flesh of the porgies, also called scup, and the darker, denser meat of the mackerel. Because 50 percent of the weight of a whole fish is lost in the trimming these, 4 pounds of fish will yield 2 pounds or less of fillet.

But you can use any fish: The red fish in the photo is a Pacific fish called idiot fish, kinki fish, or shortspine thornyhead (Sebastolobus alascanus). It has delicious soft flesh.

Complementing with the right grilled sides

Peperoni in Graticola (Grilled red, green, and yellow peppers) Credit: Copyright 2015 Clifford A. Wright

Peperoni in Graticola (Grilled red, green, and yellow peppers) Credit: Copyright 2015 Clifford A. Wright

I think it’s always nice to have grilled vegetables with any grill party. Grilled red, green and yellow peppers make a very attractive presentation. Their flavor is a natural accompaniment to grilled meats. The charred skin of the peppers is peeled off before serving, leaving the smoky flavor. You don’t have to core or halve the peppers before grilling.

Grilled Pork Chops Oregano

Prep time: 4 hours

Cooking time: 30 minutes

Total time: 4 hours, 30 minutes

Yield: 4 to 6 servings

Ingredients

1 cup extra virgin olive oil

4 garlic cloves, finely chopped

1 onion, finely chopped

1/4 cup finely chopped fresh oregano and 2 tablespoons whole leaves

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

14 to 16 pork chops (about 2 pounds), sliced 1/4-inch thick

Directions

1. Mix the olive oil, garlic, onion, oregano, and salt and pepper to taste in a 9-by-12-inch ceramic or glass baking pan. Dip both sides of the pork chops into this mixture and then leave to marinate in the refrigerator, covered, for 4 hours, turning several times. Remove the pork chops from the refrigerator 15 minutes before grilling.

2. Prepare a medium-hot charcoal fire or preheat a gas grill for 15 minutes on medium high.

3. Remove the pork chops from the marinade and discard the marinade. Place the pork chops with any marinade ingredients adhering to them on the grill. Cook, turning only once, until golden brown with black grid marks, about 10 minutes. Sprinkle with the whole oregano leaves. Serve hot.

Chicken Arrabbiata

Prep time: 20 minutes

Cooking time: 25 minutes

Total time: 45 minutes

Yield: 4 servings

Ingredients

1 small onion, chopped fine

3 tablespoons tomato paste

3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

1 teaspoon cayenne pepper

Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

1 1/2 pounds boneless chicken thighs or breasts (skinless, optional)

Directions

1. Prepare a hot charcoal fire to one side of the grill or preheat one side of a gas grill on high for 20 minutes.

2. Meanwhile, in a bowl, stir together the onion, tomato paste, olive oil, cayenne, and salt and pepper to taste until well blended.

3. Flatten the chicken thighs or breasts by pounding gently with the side of a heavy cleaver or a mallet between two sheets of wax paper. Coat the chicken with the tomato paste mixture.

4. Place the chicken on the cool side of the grill, and cook until the chicken is dark and springy to the touch, turning once, about 20 to 24 minutes (less time for breasts). Baste with any remaining sauce and serve.

Main photo: Grilled Pork Chops Oregano. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clifford A. Wright

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Pasta isn't just for cold weather dinners anymore. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clifford A. Wright

Everyone loves pasta, but during hot summer days a bowl of steaming pasta doesn’t sound that appealing.

Some people make cold macaroni salads, but I think pasta is not meant to be eaten cold and besides, those macaroni salads usually have mayonnaise in them and fill you up too much. The Italians have an ideal solution. Basically it’s a dish of hot pasta that cools down by virtue of being tossed with uncooked ingredients. They call it a salsa cruda. This is a raw sauce used with pasta. It’s quite popular during a hot summer.

The basic idea behind a salsa cruda is that the ingredients in the sauce are not cooked and are merely warmed by the hot pasta after it’s been drained.

Dressed up tuna and vegetables with bowties

Farfalle with raw sauce. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clifford A. Wright

Farfalle with raw sauce. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clifford A. Wright

In the first dish, farfalle with raw sauce, the salsa cruda is made of canned tuna, fresh tomatoes, fresh basil and garlic. It is tossed with the farfalle, a butterfly or bowtie-shaped pasta.

A first course for a meal with grilled fish

Fettucine with raw sauce. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clifford A. Wright

Fettucine with raw sauce. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clifford A. Wright

A second idea is fettuccine tossed with a melange of uncooked ingredients such as olives, capers, tomatoes, mint, lemon, parsley and garlic, which is typical of southern Italy and constitutes a raw sauce that screams “summer.” This is a nice first-course pasta before having grilled fish.

Letting your pasta cook its own sauce

Spaghetti with sardines, tomato and mint. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clifford A. Wright

Spaghetti with sardines, tomato and mint. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clifford A. Wright

In a third preparation, also perfect for a hot summer day, the salsa cruda is made with canned sardines tossed with fresh mint and parsley, and ripe tomatoes that are heated through only by virtue of the cooked and hot spaghetti. It should be lukewarm when served and is nicely accompanied by crusty bread to soak up remaining sauce.

Creamy salsa cruda with ricotta

Tubetti with ricotta, artichoke, Prosciutto and mint. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clifford A. Wright

Tubetti with ricotta, artichoke, Prosciutto and mint. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clifford A. Wright

This dish can be whipped up in no time as it uses a raw sauce with fresh ricotta that melts slowly from the heat of the pasta, but not completely, and with thinly sliced prosciutto. And better still would be to use fresh artichokes, if you don’t mind the work involved. Instead of garnishing with parsley, you garnish this dish with finely chopped tomato.

Fettuccine With Raw Sauce

Prep time: 5 minutes

Cooking time: 10 minutes

Total time: 15 minutes

Yield: 4 servings

Ingredients

3/4 pound spaghetti

Salt to taste

1 large garlic clove, finely chopped

1 1/2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh parsley leaves

3 tablespoons finely chopped fresh mint leaves

1 large ripe tomato, peeled, seeded and chopped

2 canned sardines in water, drained and broken apart

2 teaspoons capers, chopped

Extra virgin olive oil to taste

Freshly ground black pepper to taste

Directions

1. Bring a large pot of water to a rolling boil, salt abundantly then cook the pasta, stirring occasionally, until the pasta is al dente. Drain without rinsing.

2. In a large bowl that will hold all the pasta, stir the garlic, parsley and mint together and then mix with the tomato, sardines, capers, olive oil and a pinch of salt. Transfer the pasta to the bowl and toss with the sauce and abundant black pepper and serve.

Tubetti With Ricotta, Artichoke, Prosciutto and Mint

Prep time: 5 minutes

Cooking time: 10 minutes

Total time: 15 minutes

Yield: 6 servings

Ingredients

1 pound tubetti or elbow macaroni

Salt to taste

1/2 pound ricotta cheese

1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil

8 to 9 fresh or canned artichoke foundations, chopped (14-to 16-ounce can) or 3 very large fresh artichokes, trimmed to their foundations

1/4 pound thinly sliced prosciutto, chopped

1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh mint

2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice

Freshly ground black pepper to taste

1 small tomato, peeled, seeded, and finely chopped

Directions

1. Bring a large pot of water to a rolling boil, salt abundantly then cook the pasta, stirring occasionally, until the pasta is al dente. Drain without rinsing.

2. Meanwhile, in a bowl, gently toss the ricotta, olive oil, artichokes, prosciutto, mint, lemon juice, salt and pepper together. Transfer the pasta to the bowl and toss with the cheese and artichoke mixture. Sprinkle the tomato on top and serve.

Main photo: Pasta isn’t just for cold-weather dinners anymore. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clifford A. Wright

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

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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Steaks on the grill at The Alisal Guest Ranch and Resort. Credit: Copyright 2015 Dana Rebmann

Cooking over an open flame under star-filled skies can evoke romantic thoughts: The life of the cowboy, though dusty and hard by day, becomes almost blissful under the glow of the moon. When you’re surrounded by nature and all the fresh air you can inhale, food just magically tastes better, or so the home-on-the-range story goes. But fast-forward to the modern-day chuck wagon: You, standing at your outdoor grill, staring at a piece of raw meat and a burning fire. Things can quickly go up in flames.

The simple truth is that barbecue — the kind you want to sink your teeth into — takes talent and skill; luck and courage can only get you so far. Like many home cooks, I consider the grill a backyard basic, but my comfort zone is in the kitchen. So when I was invited to attend BBQ Bootcamp at The Alisal Guest Ranch and Resort, I packed my bag and headed south to Solvang, California, with mustang speed.

Home on the range. Credit: Copyright 2015 The Alisal Guest Ranch and Resort

Home on the range. Credit: Copyright 2015 The Alisal Guest Ranch and Resort

Culinary workout

Forget workouts at a gym: At this boot camp, the heat of multiple grills are what make you sweat, and instead of lifting weights, you’ll be faced with meatier challenges, like squeezing tongs around pieces of meat that could feed small families and mixing custom spice blends. Neither of which, by the way, is easy.

If you’re a nervous Nellie in the kitchen, the drive to The Alisal should help you relax. The route takes you through the windmill haven of Solvang, also known as Little Denmark. Founded in the early 1900s by Danish-Americans, it’s a good place to get a sugar fix. Solvang Restaurant on Copenhagen Drive has a take-out window, making it way too easy to grab an order of aebleskivers and go. Hard to pronounce but fun to eat, these pancake-doughnut hybrids are traditionally served with raspberry jam and powdered sugar; still, the à la mode option is hard to pass up. Wander a while if you want — you’re only a couple minutes away from the ranch. But you don’t want to be late for dinner.

Relaxing at the dude ranch. Credit: Copyright 2014 Dana Rebmann

Relaxing at the dude ranch. Credit: Copyright 2015 Dana Rebmann

Vacation on a working ranch

The “I’m on vacation” feeling should sink in when you turn into The Alisal’s long, sycamore-lined driveway. Barnyard animals linger, horses munch happily on what seem to be never-ending stretches of green grass, and the sight of a pay phone outside the lobby makes you laugh — until you check for what is a most likely a nonexistent cell-phone signal. The front desk has change if you need it (along with mugs full of Tootsie Roll Pops).

At 10,000 cattle strong, The Alisal is a working ranch; the 73 cottage-style rooms and suites are just a small portion of this scenic Central Coast property. But it’s one with a dress code. Comfortable play clothes are encouraged by day, but come dinner, bandannas get left in the dust. Men don jackets, while women and children put on party duds.

Guest cottage at The Alisal. Credit: Copyright 2015 The Alisal Guest Ranch and Resort

Guest cottage at The Alisal. Credit: Copyright 2015 The Alisal Guest Ranch and Resort

Old West style

Cowboys might consider their retirement options after spending a night in one of The Alisal’s cottages. Old West linens gussy up beds made of tree branches. Fireplaces burn wood delivered by the morning maid. There’s no need to set out on the range for necessary supplies; all you need is a key to the door (a real metal one, not a plastic card). BBQ Bootcamp students receive a welcome basket loaded with gourmet grilling rubs and libations to help prepare for the meaty workshops ahead.

BBQ Bootcamp is a joint effort between Alisal executive chef Pascal Godé and Frank Ostini, chef-owner of the nearby Hitching Post II, which gained fame after the release of the Academy Award-winning movie “Sideways.” The two chefs focus on the art of Santa Maria-style grilling, a different beast than its well-known Southern cousin.

Grilled artichokes boast a meatiness of their own. Credit: Copyright 2015 Dana Rebmann

Grilled artichokes boast a meatiness of their own. Credit: Copyright 2015 Dana Rebmann

Mastering open-flame cooking

“In Santa Maria-style barbecue, salt is one of the biggest ingredients,” Ostini says. In a departure from other grilling traditions, no sugar is added. “We like to infuse sweetness with caramelization on the grill.”

Grilling over a hot fire cooks foods more quickly than do the low and slow methods often used in the South — and here’s where much of the trouble begins for novices. Meat that’s burned on the outside yet raw on the inside is too often what sends the uneducated back into the kitchen.

On the first night of BBQ Bootcamp, professionals man numerous, monster-sized, wood-fired grills, offering tips and techniques as they cook everything from beef tri-tip and New York strips to artichokes and bacon-wrapped scallops. Lecturing is limited and notetaking is not a necessity. All students receive a Bootcamp bible of sorts. Along with expected recipes, the spiral-bound book gives a comprehensive yet understandable overview of the differences between wood, gas and charcoal grilling. In this stretch of the world, adjustable, wood-burning iron grills are the apparatus of choice, and red oak is the preferred fuel for the fire.

Relax, eat and drink. Tomorrow, the work begins.

What rush hour looks like on a dude ranch. Credit: Copyright 2014 Dana Rebmann

What rush hour looks like on a dude ranch. Credit: Copyright 2015 Dana Rebmann

Rise and shine

When the alarm goes off, bootcampers have to resist the temptation to linger or their ride to breakfast will leave without them. Clothes that can get a little dusty are essential, and you’ll understand why when you arrive at the barn. Once you’re saddled up, the commute to breakfast begins. There are no traffic signals to slow you down, just fast-moving deer and the occasional bovine roadblock to distract you.

A pancake breakfast starts the day. Credit: Copyright 2014 Dana Rebmann

A pancake breakfast starts the day. Credit: Copyright 2015 Dana Rebmann

Hearty breakfast

The buffet is loaded with all sorts of good grub, ranging from fruit and pastries to hash browns and biscuits and gravy. The griddle is manned by a resident pancake artist who dishes up flapjacks (sometimes bigger than your plate) that make even mom’s seem suddenly ordinary. But be careful not to overindulge: The ride back to the ranch may shake up your breakfast a bit. “There’s a reason they call it horse riding, not horse sitting,” says Dick, an Alisal wrangler with 35 years of experience under his shiny cowboy belt.

Blending spices for meat rubs. Credit: Copyright 2015 Dana Rebmann

Blending spices for meat rubs. Credit: Copyright 2015 Dana Rebmann

Spice-filled afternoon

You’ll have just enough time after your morning ride to take a power nap or play a game of horseshoes; then the afternoon spice-blending workshop begins. A pinch of this and a pinch of that: The formula doesn’t sound so hard until you’re standing in front of a table with 30-plus seasonings to choose from.

“Steak can take heavy spices,” says Godé, adding, “Go lighter on fish. You want to taste your halibut. You want to taste your salmon.” Purchasing spices from a reliable source to ensure their purity and freshness seems to be the golden rule.

Grill skills are put to the test. Credit: Copyright 2014 Dana Rebmann

Grill skills are put to the test. Credit: Copyright 2015 Dana Rebmann

Manning the grill

When Alisal’s pleasant-sounding dinner bell rings loud and clear on day two, bootcampers won’t hear it, because they’ll already be grillside, heatedly plotting their first move. Amid the basting and flipping, their nervousness will be eased by grill masters standing by and an endless flow of locally brewed Firestone Walker beer and wine from Ferguson Crest (a Santa Ynez Valley winery founded by Pat Ferguson and his daughter Fergie — yes, that Fergie).

When it’s all said and done, wannabe cowboys and cowgirls might truthfully do more eating than barbecuing, but there will still be plenty of stories to tell when everyone sits down for the night — home on the range not by a campfire, but poolside with heat lamps.

The next BBQ Bootcamp is set for Oct. 28-30, 2015. Giddy up!

Main photo: Steaks on the grill at The Alisal Guest Ranch and Resort. Credit: Copyright 2015 Dana Rebmann

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